Feds Designate Critical Habitat for Loggerhead Sea Turtles: What does it Mean?

Issue 2, 2013

Feds Designate Critical Habitat for Loggerhead Sea Turtles: What does it Mean?

By Gary Appelson

In 2007, a petition was presented to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requesting that they uplist loggerhead sea turtles from threatened to endangered. As a result, in 2010 NMFS announced the identification of 9 Distinct Population Segments of loggerheads (discreet populations based on genetics and range) and proposed that the two Pacific segments be uplisted from threatened to endangered status. This change in federal status triggered a requirement under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which required federal agencies to identify and label so called “critical habitat” (CH) for all loggerhead sea turtle populations. Since sea turtles nest on the beach and utilize essential marine areas for mating and foraging, CH had to be designated for both terrestrial and marine habitats.

In March 2013, FWS finally announced its draft proposal designating terrestrial CH for the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead population segment, which included beaches along 739 miles of coastline from North Carolina to Mississippi. The proposal includes 84% of all nesting habitat for loggerheads in the United States. STC and many other organizations submitted comments supporting the CH designations for beaches.

In July 2013, NMFS issued its long-awaited draft rule designating CH in the marine environment. NMFS proposed critical habitat for 36 separate marine areas within the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead’s range, including nearshore reproductive habitat (extending from the shoreline out to 1.6 km in an area used by hatchlings leaving the beach and by adult females during internesting); areas used for breeding, foraging, and wintering; migratory pathways (including the narrow migration route hugging the Florida coastline from Cape Canaveral to the Keys); and open ocean pelagic habitats with concentrations of floating Sargassum mats that are utilized by hatchlings and sub-adult loggerheads.

So what does the CH designation mean? The critical habitat label is given to areas essential for the survival, recovery and conservation of the species that may require special protections. It focuses on physical or biological features of the habitats that support the life history needs of the species.

The designation affects all future federal activities in those areas by adding an additional layer of review for certain types of coastal development, beach nourishment and fisheries management when permitting decisions for these activities include a federal connection. Unfortunately, most types of beachfront development and sea wall construction do not include any federal oversight. Therefore, the CH designation would not impact state permit decisions about these activities. However, if a federal agency is involved in approving or funding an activity that impacts these habitats, they must ensure the activity does not result in “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat. The federal agencies also must protect the known biological and physical features of the habitats that are essential to conservation.

CH designation is not a silver-bullet answer to protecting loggerhead habitat, and there is a lot of confusion about what the designation really means. Some coastal governments and development interests are objecting to designations, especially for nesting beaches. They fear it will curtail coastal development, limit public access to beaches, or otherwise harm local economies. These fears are exaggerated and unfounded, as sea turtles already are protected under the ESA. For example, a federal permit for beach nourishment already includes extensive “terms and conditions” that must be met to protect endangered sea turtles. Designating the beach as critical habitat will not add significant additional requirements to the federal permit.

A critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits, or activities are involved. The designations do not affect activities by state or local governments or by individuals unless a federal permit is required. Importantly, the designations help highlight the significance of these areas so the public and city and state governments can better plan coastal activities and mitigate threats to nesting habitat or in-water habitats. Additional federal funding may also be available to states for activities that benefit loggerhead nesting habitat. Critical habitat does not limit public access or affect beach activities such as surfing, swimming, fishing and sunbathing. It also does not affect land ownership nor does it establish any preserves or refuges.

Loggerheads migrate many miles to reach their nesting beaches each year. The CH designations for beaches could add some increased scrutiny of federally-permitted activities that help ensure nesting turtles return to healthy beaches to lay their eggs. STC believes what is good for sea turtles is also good for beaches and the public. The same holds true for the marine habitats. The critical habitat designations support this belief by helping keep our beaches and marine waters clean and healthy while preserving their valuable ecological and economic benefits.