WASHINGTON — 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 on Wednesday designated those coastlines, as well as 300,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, as a critical habitat for this endangered turtle species, the largest federal protection of its kind. Already afforded several protections as an endangered species, the turtle is now 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.
Though the groups had hoped the critical habitat would include areas of the Pacific Ocean, NOAA fishery biologist Susan Pultz said loggerheads didn’t populate that region enough to warrant the designation.
Loggerhead turtles use 1,531 miles of beaches in the United States, yet some of the coastal areas included in the critical habitat aren’t currently home to the species. Including these unoccupied areas is a prospective approach, said Amanda Keledjian, a marine biologist at Oceana, an ocean conservationist nonprofit organization.
“They were included for the purposes of climate change and perhaps will become even more important in the future,” Keledjian said. “We’re very excited that such a large area was designated. That’s a big step for turtles.”
Conservation groups had sued NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service last year when the federal environmental agencies didn’t create a critical habitat for the loggerheads the year before. The agencies had been legally required 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 Wednesday.
There are more than 600 threatened or endangered species with critical habitats. These areas have environments that are naturally stocked with the elements necessary to preserve the species. Removing or marring those features is banned.
Loggerhead turtles, which spend about 12 years in deep water and 23 closer to the coast, are the largest sea turtle species in the United States’ Southeast region. The breed was designated as endangered in 1978.
“They survive our oil spills, plastic pollution and fishing nets only to return to their natal beaches, which are now threatened by sea-level rise,” said Jaclyn Lopez, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an endangered-species nonprofit organization. “Today’s designation will maximize conservation efforts by protecting turtles on land and sea, offering hope for recovery.”