Federal agencies have passed legislation as part of an Endangered Species Act requirement to protect the habitat of a threatened species of sea turtle in Gulf waters and the Atlantic Ocean.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced two final rules to designate critical habitat involving marine areas and nesting beaches for loggerheads at 88 nesting beaches in coastal counties located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. The rules go into effect on Aug. 9.
The rulings allow officials to prioritize recovery efforts of loggerhead sea turtles. The critical habitat types include nearshore reproductive habitat, winter area, breeding areas, constricted migratory corridors, and/or Sargassum habitat. Approximately 685 miles fall within the boundaries of the critical habitat designation.
Loggerhead hatchlings will be better protected within sargassum seaweed. That is where the young sea turtles spend their first few years.
Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield was delighted with the news.
"Basically, they are protecting the species because they are so important to the health of the ocean," Haverfield said. "Sea turtles take care of the ocean. They are the sentinels of the ocean, and each species has a different function. Loggerheads are the bulldozers. They keep the sentiment loose so that fish can hide and lay their eggs in a clean environment."
USFWS Director Dan Ashe agreed.
"The fate of more than just the loggerhead sea turtle rests on the health of Atlantic coastal environments," he said. "Coastal communities from North Carolina to Mississippi are also intrinsically tied to these shorelines and waters. By conserving the turtle and protecting its habitat, we are helping preserve not only this emblematic species, but also the way of life for millions of Americans."
Critical habitat designations do not create preserves or refuges or affect land ownership, and only result in restrictions on human activities in situations where federal actions, funding or permitting are involved. In those cases, the federal agency concerned works with NOAA Fisheries or USFWS to avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to the species' habitat. Critical habitat is only designated within U.S. jurisdiction.
"There is a lot of misconception that this will reduce beach access, but that is not the case," said Ann Marie Lauritsen, USFWS sea turtle recovery coordinator. "The regulatory mechanism is for federal agencies. Critical habitat does not close off beaches."
Susan Pultz, NOAA's biologist of endangered species, also stated there would be no noticeable regulatory impacts. The particular species of sea turtles has been listed as threatened since 1978.
"We have looked at this really closely, and there are really very little regulatory impacts if any," she said. "It's only a federal impact. It doesn't mean it can affect other people who are receiving federal money or permits. We don't anticipate asking any further conservation measures of anyone."
The NOAA-designated marine critical habitat includes some nearshore reproductive areas directly off of nesting beaches from North Carolina through Mississippi, winter habitat in North Carolina, breeding habitat in Florida, constricted migratory corridors in North Carolina and Florida, and Sargassum habitat, which is home to the majority of juvenile turtles, in the western Gulf of Mexico and in U.S. waters within the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean.
"One small aspect of the ruling will protect the area where sargassum seaweed is," Haverfield pointed out. "That is where the hatchlings spend their first few years. Also, migratory areas are protected, which means that shrimpers will not be allowed to shrimp in those areas at certain times of the year."
The USFWS-designated terrestrial critical habitat areas include beaches that account for 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline used by loggerheads, and about 84 percent of the documented numbers of nests, within the aforementioned six states.
Under the ESA, critical habitat identifies geographic areas containing features essential to the conservation of a listed species. As far as Southwest Florida, the rulings do directly impact Bonita Beach as well as Sanibel and Captiva islands but not Fort Myers Beach because the nesting numbers on the seven-mile island are not high enough to warrant consideration.
USFWS officials dissected Florida into five different areas and looked for the highest percentile of beaches.
"In the selection process for beaches, we looked at the recovery units. In Florida, based on genetics, there were five areas. Within those areas, we looked at the higher density nesting beaches. Those were selected. We were looking to capture the spacial distribution and genetic diversity of the loggerhead," said Lauritsen. "This allows the services to prioritize areas for recovery to reach our recovery goals. It also provides education and an opportunity to work with our partners in terms of the prioritized areas."
Haverfield reiterated that the rulings do not create restrictions or critical wildlife areas nor does it take private property away.
"People shouldn't worry. This will not impinge on taking land. It's not designating a park or something to that nature," she said. "It's not taking anything away from anybody."
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires that NOAA Fisheries and USFWS, the two federal agencies responsible for administering the act, designate critical habitat when a species is listed, or within one year if critical habitat is not determinable at that time. Although loggerhead sea turtles were originally listed in 1978 worldwide, the listing was revised in 2011, when nine distinct population segments were listed, including the Northwest Atlantic Ocean DPS and the North Pacific Ocean DPS, the only two that occur in areas under U.S. jurisdiction.
The loggerhead is regarded as the most common sea turtle in southeastern United States, nesting along the Atlantic Coast of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina and along the Gulf Coast. It is a long-lived, slow-growing species, vulnerable to various threats including alterations to beaches, vessel strikes and by catch in fishing nets.
"We are hoping this will highlight the plight of the loggerheads, their conservation needs, the important habitat for the species and help with the planning and avoid future impacts," Pultz said.
The proposed rules, which were published in the Federal Register on March 25, 2013 (USFWS) and July 18, 2013 (NOAA Fisheries), were both made available for extended public comment. NOAA Fisheries and USFWS each held three public hearings during the comment periods on their proposed rules (NOAA Fisheries in Morehead City, Wilmington and Manteo, N.C.; USFWS in Charleston, SC, and Wilmington and Morehead City, N.C.).
To view the final NOAA Fisheries rule for marine critical habitat, visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/criticalhabitat_loggerhead.htm.
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