ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— After five years of delay, the federal government today finally proposed to protect more than 739 miles of critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles on their nesting beaches along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These sea turtles face serious threats to their long-term survival from drowning in fishing nets, loss of nesting beaches due to coastal development and sea-level rise. The proposal spans from North Carolina to Mississippi and encompasses 84 percent of all known nesting areas.
Today’s action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes as a result of a lawsuit filed earlier this year by conservation groups Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network, after federal agencies failed to respond to separate petitions filed by the groups to strengthen protections for all loggerhead populations in the U.S. dating back to 2007.
“The Southeast’s nesting loggerheads swim thousands of miles through an obstacle course of human-made hazards,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protected beach habitat will help ensure that when they reach our beaches, exhausted and ready to nest, they’re met with true southern hospitality: plenty of food, good conditions for nesting, and safe beaches for hatchlings to leave their nests so they may someday return to continue the cycle of life.”
This is the first permanent habitat protection has been proposed for sea turtles along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, outside of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Any new beachside hotels, homes or commercial construction built on protected beaches that require federal permits would need to be reviewed to prevent harm to nesting areas. The government is also expected to propose in-water critical habitat areas later this year.
The government must also protect offshore feeding and breeding areas and will likely propose in-water critical habitat later this year. Any wave-energy, offshore-drilling, or aquaculture projects in or likely to affect the designated ocean critical habitat would also require analysis and assessment to ensure that these activities would not compromise their ability to find food, breed, and migrate safely in their ocean home.
“Turtles in water are often caught in fishing gear struck by moving vessels, or risk ingesting debris such as plastic bags by mistake,” said Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at Oceana. “The National Marine Fisheries Service must follow upon this action and designate off-shore areas as well as waters directly adjacent to nesting beaches if they want these vulnerable populations to recover.”
“At last, these precious and well-loved sea turtles will find a safe haven when nesting and swimming along our coasts," said Todd Steiner, executive director of SeaTurtles.org. “Thousands of volunteers that spend their summer nights walking the beaches looking for nesting turtles will breathe a bit easier knowing that these gentle giants will face less danger when they return to the sea."
Public comments will be accepted until May 24, 2013, with the final protections expected to take effect in 2014. Species with critical habitat protected under the Endangered Species Act are twice as likely to show signs of measureable recovery compared to those without.
Loggerhead sea turtles make some of the longest journeys of any sea turtle species, making trips that can span entire ocean basins. Areas along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, contain critical feeding grounds for many turtles, but fishing activities and ocean pollution in these areas pose significant threats to their survival.
Once fully mature, loggerheads nest on beaches from Texas to Virginia, but 90 percent of U.S. loggerhead nesting occurs in Florida — mostly in Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Sarasota counties. Sea-level rise, coastal development and beach armoring are only some of the dangers turtles encounter while trying to successfully nest. The number of loggerhead sea turtles nesting along Florida beaches has grown in recent years, however many of these beach areas were also hit last July with Tropical Storm Debbie, pulling thousands of loggerhead eggs out to sea.
The main threats to loggerhead sea turtle recovery are from serious injury or death from entanglement in fishing gear, destruction of foraging grounds and loss of nesting habitat. Scientists estimate sea levels will rise by at least three to six feet by the end of the century, with East Coast sea levels rising three to four times faster than the global average, flooding important sea turtle habitats on vulnerable Florida beaches. In addition, beach armoring and coastal development prevent natural beach migration, where, in the absence of humans, sandy beach areas would naturally retreat along with rising sea levels and sea turtles would be able to continue nesting.
On Sept. 22, 2011, loggerhead sea turtles worldwide were protected as nine separate populations under the Endangered Species Act, including endangered North Pacific loggerheads and threatened Northwest Atlantic loggerheads. This triggered a requirement to designate and protect critical habitat areas concurrently with the listing, with a deadline the government failed to meet. Seeking action on the petition filed in 2007, the Center, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed suit in January 2013 targeting the National Marine Fisheries Service’s failure to designate critical habitat.
Click here for more information about loggerhead populations and to download the petitions.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org
Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 550,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. www.oceana.org
Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.org) is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 60,000 members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. www.SeaTurtles.org