Sea turtles have been swimming the planet’s waters for millions of years, surviving everything from the mass dinosaur extinction to countless natural disasters and cunning predators. In recent years however, sea turtle populations have begun to plummet as they’ve encountered the one threat they have no defenses against—us. Recently, however, there has been reason for sea turtle lovers to rejoice, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally designated 740 miles of critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico shorelines.
Although this designation is great news, it should have happened years ago. In 2011, the federal government listed loggerhead sea turtles as nine distinct populations under the Endangered Species Act, which triggered requirements to set aside and protect certain habitat areas where these animals live, feed, and mate. After the government failed to meet their deadline to designate critical habitat areas, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network sued to demand they take action and protect the areas that loggerhead sea turtles call home. As a result of that lawsuit, now six states along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico have protected areas, covering 85% of known nesting beaches.
Designating critical habitat is an important step in allowing these loggerheads sea turtles to rebuild their populations because it improves their resilience from threats that include climate change, habitat destruction, disease, poachers and harmful fishing gear that often trap the unsuspecting turtles. Studies have shown that species listed as threatened or endangered are more than twice as likely to show recovery and population growth when a designated critical habitat exist.
Since their threatened listing in 1978, just five years after the Endangered Species Act was created, critical habitat has never been designated. Although the recent beach protections are an excellent first step, in order for loggerhead sea turtles to fully recover, it is imperative that the government go a step further and designate critical habitat offshore and in the waters directly adjacent to the nesting areas where these turtles feed and swim. This will ensure that future development and conservation projects take into account all areas of loggerhead habitat and prevent future habitat loss and degradation.
Stay tuned to learn more about how you can encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make this strong proposal final.
Amanda Keledjian is a marine scientist at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. To learn more about Oceana’s work with sea turtles, please visit us at www.oceana.org.
Photo Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling / USFWS