Cheers to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for designating 685 miles (1,100 km) of beaches from Mississippi to North Carolina and 300,000 square miles (777,000 sq. km) of ocean off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as critical nesting and roaming habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles.
The joint ruling by the NOAA and the USFWS is the largest critical habitat designation in U.S. history according to environmentalists. It followed a lawsuit filed last year by environmental groups to require the government to protect the area. Scientists said the area is home to 70,000 to 90,000 nesting sites per year and comprises 84 percent of all known nesting areas for the large sea turtles.
“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,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries.
The designated area includes some reproductive areas directly off of nesting beaches from North Carolina through Mississippi, and breeding habitat in Florida, as well as 88 nesting beaches in six states, which account for 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles (2,464 km) of coastal beach shoreline used by loggerheads.
“The fate of more than just the loggerhead sea turtle rests on the health of Atlantic coastal environments,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe. “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.”
Protection doesn't limit public access to the designated areas but requires that any federal activity in the waters off nesting sites, such as drilling or fisheries, must be further scrutinized for possible impact on the turtles.
Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at Oceana, a Washington-based nonprofit environmental group, one of three organizations that sued the government, told Reuters that loggerheads face persistent threats from fishing gear, pollution and climate change.
The Reuters article also stated that scientists estimate about 50,000 loggerhead sea turtles are caught in shrimp trawls each year in the Gulf of Mexico, she said.
The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle in the southeastern United States and migrates thousands of miles in U.S. waters but nest on Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico shores.
They can live 40 years or longer, weighing up to 250 pounds (113 kg), and were first listed as endangered in 1978.