July 18, 2014

Outer Banks not included in critical
habitat for loggerheads

By CATHERINE KOZAK

To the relief of beach access proponents, the Outer Banks is not included in a new rule that established critical habitat areas for loggerhead turtles on nearly 700 miles of shoreline in southeastern states. 

The designation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides another layer of regulation to management of protected species, and is in place on beaches within Cape Hatteras National Seashore for piping plovers. 

As the northernmost range for nesting sea turtles, the Outer Banks was not part of the proposed rule. But in their comments, environmental groups had asked for the designation to be expanded to Outer Banks beaches as a proactive measure to ensure population diversity and resilience. 

“Of course, we were concerned, particularly on the terrestrial rules, that they might designate areas in Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” said David Scarborough, a member and treasurer of the board of the Outer Banks Preservation Association. 

“We are happy that it did not affect us, but we are disappointed that the beaches south of us were included and in how the science was used.” 

Scarborough contends that the boundaries appear to be based more on politics than concern about turtle diversity or nesting density. 

“To us, those are just buzzwords,” he said. 

Of the 685 miles of sea turtle nesting beaches designated, only Brunswick, Carteret, New Hanover, Onslow and Pender counties were included in North Carolina. Other areas in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were also designated as critical habitat. 

Greg “Rudi” Rudolph, with the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, said that, despite all the comments from the southern counties expressing their concerns about unnecessary and restrictive regulation, only about one paragraph of changes were evident in the final rule. 

Rudolph said that the county will decide by the end of August whether to take legal action to challenge the rule. 

A separate critical habitat rule covering the marine range for migrating sea turtles included area about three miles offshore the Outer Banks stretching south from Kitty Hawk, Scarborough said. 

“Since this is a new designation, it remains to be seen what kind of impact that will have,” Scarborough said. 

During the public comment period last year, some people said they were worried about more restrictions on fishing, dredging and construction projects. 

Scarborough said that no waters in the Pamlico Sound were included, which was a relief to access proponents who had said that current restrictions provided adequate protection for the turtles. Also, since the Outer Banks beaches were not included in the land-based critical habitat, the nearshore waters were not included in the marine designation.  

Loggerhead turtles were listed on the Endangered Species as threatened in 1978, prior to implementation of the critical habitat rule. When the listing was revised in 2011, both NOAA Fisheries, which has jurisdiction over the turtles in the water, and Fish and Wildlife, which has jurisdiction on land, were obligated by law to designate critical habitat. 

Critical habitat comprises areas that are deemed essential to conservation of the species and need special protective measures. Agency representatives had made assurances that the designation would create minor, if any, changes in management. 

Both agencies released their separate rules on July 10.  The rules are in effect 30 days after publication. 

Pete Benjamin, Fish and Wildlife field supervisor in the agency’s Raleigh office, said that there were many comments on both sides – those that didn’t want any of North Carolina included, and those that wanted the designation extended to the entire coast. 

Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout were not included in the designation because they are not high density nesting beaches for loggerheads, he said. 

But the more southern beaches were included, in part, because their higher number of males in the population counterbalance the higher number of females that hatch on Florida beaches.   

After weighing all the comments, Benjamin said, it was decided that a change in the methodology of the rule was not warranted.  

“There wasn’t a compelling reason,” he said, “to deviate from the criteria that we had originally proposed.”
               

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