Critical habitat designated for loggerhead sea turtles in Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico

Across 685 miles of beaches from North Carolina to Mississippi, loggerhead sea turtles now swim in federally protected waters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week designated those coastlines, as well as 300,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, as a critical habitat for this species, the largest federal protection of its kind. Already afforded several protections as an endangered species, loggerheads now are further protected because the critical-habitat classification limits how federal agencies can use the region.

Before shipping or building in a critical habitat, federal agencies must consult with NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the project doesn’t remove or mar the features necessary for the species’ survival.

Loggerhead turtles use 1,531 miles of beaches in the United States for nesting.

Conservation groups sued NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service last year when the federal environmental agencies failed to create a critical habitat for the loggerheads the year before. The agencies were required by law to establish the region by 2012. The parties settled the lawsuit, which required the agencies to draft a proposal for the habitat last July and a finalized version last Wednesday.

According to the report, the majority of loggerhead nesting is at the western rims of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The most recent reviews show that only two loggerhead nesting regions have more than 10,000 females nesting per year: South Florida and Masirah, an island off the east coast of Oman.

Loggerheads nest within the U.S. from Texas to Virginia, although the largest nesting concentrations are found in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. About 80 percent nest in six counties along Florida’s east coast: Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Broward, according to the report.

Counties on Florida’s west coast, including Pinellas, were not identified as critical nesting regions in the report.

Common threats to loggerheads

The most significant threat to loggerhead populations, according to NOAA, is beach erosion caused by coastal development that contributes to the loss and degradation of nesting and foraging habitats. Beachfront lighting from such development also disorients turtle hatchlings as they leave the nest and head to the water.

Other threats include marine pollution and debris, native and non-native predators, watercraft strikes, disease, and incidental channel dredging and commercial trawling.

In 2012, the state Department of Environmental Protection inventoried Florida’s erosion problem areas fronting the Atlantic Ocean, Straits of Florida, Gulf of Mexico and the roughly 70 coastal barrier tidal inlets. Its findings determined that in Pinellas County, 21.4 miles out of 35 miles of beach on 11 barrier islands from Honeymoon Island to Fort Desoto are critically eroded, which could have an impact on sea turtle nesting.

Nesting season hits peak

The U.S. nesting season occurs from April through September, with a peak in June and July. Nesting occurs primarily at night. The eggs incubate for an average of 55-60 days.
Amy Binder, spokesperson for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, reported Wednesday that 149 nests have been found this season along the Pinellas County coastline, stretching from the southern tip of Caladesi Island south to Pass-a-Grille. In addition, four nests have hatched and one nest produced 121 hatchlings. And 134 false crawls, crawls resulting from an abandoned nesting attempt, were reported.

Editor Jane Bongo contributed to this story.

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