By Cheryl Blackerby
Loggerhead sea turtles will get another layer of federal protection Aug. 3 when 685 miles of coastal beaches in six states — including all of Palm Beach County’s beaches — are designated “critical habitats” for loggerheads.
The new designation will not affect beach renourishment projects, beach access or beach recreation, said Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s North Florida office.
“During the public-comment period, there was concern that there would be a change in business such as tourism and beach renourishment,” he said. “In this case, it doesn’t really change a lot. It won’t stop people from enjoying the beaches.”
“Critical habitat” is a term in the Endangered Species Act that identifies areas essential to the conservation of a listed species. Designations also inform the public of areas that are important to the species’ recovery.
“The designation is an additional layer of scrutiny,” said Underwood. “It identifies that part of nesting beaches that have the greatest impact on loggerheads. But just because a beach is not in a designated habitat doesn’t mean it’s not important. Those nests are still protected, but we’ll focus our efforts on the critical habitats.”
Specifying habitats essential to the conservation of loggerheads helps federal agencies identify where to use their authority. The designation also helps focus the conservation efforts of state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations and individuals.
Coastal residents won’t be affected unless they need a federal permit, Underwoood said. In those cases there will be two questions: “Is the impact high enough to have an adverse impact on this particular species and will it jeopardize the beaches?”
These questions are already asked, but it will bring a sharper focus to the nesting areas. “We already consult on all those critical habitats,” he said.
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 agencies work to avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to the species’ habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 88 nesting beaches in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, which account for 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline used by loggerheads.
Newly classified critical habitats also include the gulf and ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service designated offshore marine critical habitats, including nearshore reproductive areas directly off of nesting beaches from North Carolina through Mississippi, breeding habitat in Florida and constricted migratory corridors in North Carolina and Florida.
The Sargassum habitat, home to the majority of juvenile turtles in the western Gulf of Mexico and in U.S. waters within the Gulf Stream, is also included in the designation.
“Protecting endangered and threatened species, including loggerhead sea turtles, is at the core of NOAA’s mission,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries.
“Given the vital role loggerhead sea turtles play in maintaining the health of our oceans, rebuilding their populations is key as we work to ensure healthy and resilient oceans for generations to come.”
The Endangered Species Act requires that NOAA Fisheries and the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service, the two federal agencies responsible for administering the act, designate critical habitats.
The loggerhead is 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 threats including alterations to beaches, vessel strikes and fishing nets.
have at least one of these criteria:
• Suitable nesting beach habitat.
• Sand suitable for nest construction and embryo development.
• Suitable nesting habitat with sufficient darkness so as not to deter nesting turtles.
• Natural coastal processes or artificially created or maintained habit mimicking natural conditions.