Over 685 miles of nesting beach and more than 300,000 square miles of ocean were officially protected on Wednesday, in the largest critical habitat designation in U.S. history. The habitat is being set aside for the endangered loggerhead turtle to rebuild its numbers.
The decision was made in a joint ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), after a lawsuit was filed last year by environmental groups Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity. The area to be protected includes beaches in six states, from Mississippi to North Carolina, and waters in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, are home to 84 percent of all known nesting areas for loggerhead turtles. Every year these areas host as many as 70,000 to 90,000 nesting sites.
The designation will not exclude people from these areas. In fact, most beach-goers won’t notice a difference, but the added protection will require that all proposed federal activities, such as highway building, shipping, and oil and gas development are evaluated on the basis of whether or not the project will have harmful impacts on the loggerhead.
“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 in a release.
Loggerhead turtles, the second largest sea turtle in the world, were first declared endangered in 1978. These gentle giants of the sea, which can live up to 40 years and weigh over 250 lbs, are under constant assault from destructive fishing practices, pollution, and habitat loss. According to Oceana, about 50,000 loggerhead sea turtles are caught in shrimp trawls each year in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to these threats, sea turtles around the world will be severely impacted by the changing climate. Sea turtles are highly dependent on coral reef ecosystems for their food. But as ocean temperatures rise and coral reefs bleach, this food web will fall apart. Sea level rise is also causing vital nesting beaches to erode, and changes in ocean currents are disrupting migration paths. Even the predicted increase in extreme rainfall events are expected to cause problems for these water-loving reptiles, as groundwater tables rise and flood beach nests. Perhaps most troubling, higher temperatures will lead to warmer sands, which can cause eggs to never hatch. Warmer temperatures also alter the sex ratio in all reptiles, causing more and more females to hatch.
“The lives of loggerhead sea turtles are truly miraculous; 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, a Florida-based staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Today’s designation will maximize conservation efforts by protecting turtles on land and sea, offering hope for recovery.”