September 2, 2014
Coastal Primer: A closer look at
critical habitat for loggerheads
By TRISTA TALTONCoastal Review Online
years from now the average annual number of loggerhead sea turtle nests
should nearly triple on beaches from North Carolina to Georgia.
the projection and a goal the federal government has set in designating
critical habitat for loggerheads, a species that has, for decades, been
listed on the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
final rules establishing critical habitat for loggerheads off and on
the shores of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean became effective Aug. 11, a
date preceded by highly charged debates about how an added layer of
protection for sea turtles might negatively affect the economic driving
force of North Carolina coastal towns – their beaches.
designations of critical habitat have sparked similar fears that the
actions would add burdensome regulations and unnecessary costs.
the decades since the loggerhead was listed in 1978, North Carolina
beach towns have collaborated with state and federal efforts to protect
sea turtles. Most beach towns have volunteer programs that protect and
monitor sea turtle nests in cooperation with the N.C. Sea Turtle
Protection Program, established in 1983 and managed by the state
Wildlife Resources Commission.
and beach nourishment projects revolve around sea turtle nesting
season. Beach communities have tackled issues relating to
artificial lighting and obstructions on the shore, both of which can
negatively affect nesting.
the fretting over designating areas as critical nesting and roaming
habitat is hype, according to Pete Benjamin, field supervisor for the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Raleigh Ecological Services Field
designate critical habitat because the law says we have to,” he said.
“We’ve been working with the Army Corps of Engineers and beach
communities and developed effective methods over the years so dredging
and beach nourishment can go forward without adverse effects on sea
turtles. In terms of how we deal with these coastal projects the
measures we have in place seem to be effective. There should be no real
change that anybody would notice with respect to how these types of
projects go forward.”
requirement to review the effects of human activities on critical
habitat applies to only to federally authorized or federally funded
projects, such as dredging and beach nourishment projects and Coastal
Area Management Act major permit applications.
our correspondence to the Corps of Engineers will include a specific
section that discusses specific project-related effects on critical
habitat,” Benjamin said. “The corps’ decision document will have to
have some language in it that refers to critical habitat. It will
probably be no more than a few paragraphs.”
Klemm, Sea Turtle Recovery coordinator of the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Regional Office, expressed
critical habitat the issue comes up only when there’s a federal nexus,”
Klemm said. “It’s an addition to the consultation process that already
exists. In most cases, potential impacts to the species have already
prompted regulation and requirements for protections. There really is
not a whole lot of expected restrictions, especially for fishing
economic cost of enforcing turtle critical habitat is about $150,000
annually. North Carolina’s share would be about $26,000.
agencies, in this case NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are by law required to identify and
establish critical habitat areas for listed species.
speaking, with a lot of our endangered species, the act said we had
something we had to do to the extent formidable at or about the time
the species is listed,” Benjamin said. “For a lot of species we did not
do that, mostly because of funding and staffing constraints. We’ve
always had to kind of prioritize which actions we were going to move
forward on. The loggerhead was the species that never rose to the top
of the list until we did the work a few years ago to determine those
distinct population segments.”
were listed as a single worldwide, threatened species until September
2011, when the agencies jointly published a final rule revising that
listing to nine distinct population segments.
two of those segments – the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and the North
Pacific Ocean – are within U.S. jurisdiction. Though the segments were
established, the agencies “lacked comprehensive data and information
necessary” to identify critical habitat for loggerheads, according to
information published by NOAA Fisheries.
than two years after the segments were identified three conservation
groups - the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island
Restoration Networks – pushed the issue by filing a lawsuit against the
National Marine Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for
failing to protect critical habitat areas for loggerheads.
July, the agencies released their final rulings. The fish and wildlife
agency established 685 miles of shore from North Carolina to
Mississippi as habitat critical to the survival of sea turtles. The
fisheries service designated waters one mile out from those shores
expanding protected waters of more than 300,000 square miles in the
Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The ruling is one of the largest
areas of critical habitat designation under the law.
The rule includes 88 nesting beaches in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
beaches account for 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal
beach shoreline used by loggerheads, and about 84 percent of the
documented numbers of nests, within these six states,” according the
habitat areas are broken into “recovery units.” Nesting beaches
from southern Virginia to the Georgia-Florida state line fall within
fish and wildlife’s “northern recovery unit” or NRU.
to the Recovery Plan for the Northwest Atlantic Population of the
Loggerhead Sea Turtle, a 325-page document published by the two federal
agencies in December 2008 and a second revision to one published in
1984, nest trends from daily beach surveys “showed a significant
decline of 1.3 percent annually since 1983.”
did observe what looked like a fairly substantial decline of sea turtle
nests on Atlantic coast beaches through the ‘90s and the early 2000s,”
Benjamin said. “Those numbers seem to be recovering somewhat. I don’t
know that we have definitive information on what was behind that
North Carolina, loggerhead sea turtle nests averages have fluctuated.
The lowest number of nests were recorded in 2004, when 344 were counted
on surveyed beaches. That was down from the 1,140 in 1999, but the
count jumped to 832 and 1,103 in 2012. That’s the second-highest count
since the state began tracking nests in the mid-1990s, according to
Annual nest totals for the NRU averaged 5,215 nests from 1989 through 2008.
is statistical confidence – 95 percent – that the annual rate of
increase over a generation time of 50 years is 2 percent or greater,
resulting in a total annual number of nests of 14,000 or greater for
this recovery unit,” according to the plan.
For North Carolina, that’s an average of 2,000 nests a year.
reach these numbers, the recovery plan identifies 208 actions that need
to be made, some of which include steps currently taken to protect the
turtles and their nests.
highest threats to loggerhead sea turtles include certain types of
fishing gear, legal and illegal harvest, vessel strikes, beach
armoring, beach erosion, marine debris ingestion, oil pollution,
artificial light pollution, predation by native and exotic species and
Many of these threats have been reduced since the loggerhead was listed, Benjamin said.
goal for every species is to get it off the endangered species list,”
he said. “That’s what we hope to do for this species.”
What Is Critical Habitat?
From the Legal Dictionary
Endangered Species Act requires that at the same time the decision is
made to list a species, the secretary of the interior must develop a
recovery plan for the species and, with certain exceptions, designate
the “critical habitat” of the species.
habitat consists of "the specific areas within the geographical area
occupied by the species, at the time it is listed … on which are found
those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation
of the species and (II) which may require special management
considerations or protection." Critical habitat must be designated on
the basis of the best scientific data available and after taking into
consideration the economic effect of the designation. An area may be
excluded from designation if the benefits of the exclusion outweigh the
benefits of the designation, unless the failure to designate will
result in the extinction of the species.
critical habitats almost always leads to conflicts and usually
lawsuits. In the most famous fight over critical habitat that made a
small fish a household name, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that
provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act prohibited the
Tennessee Valley Authority from completing the controversial Tellico
Dam. The 6–3 decision was a victory for the snail darter, the tiny
endangered fish whose spawning area in the Little Tennessee River would
be ruined by the impoundment of a lake.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)