Environmental groups push for sea turtle habitat designation, threaten lawsuit

Sea turtles that nest on Southwest Florida’s beaches could be taking a detour to a federal courtroom in a fight over their habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network put the Obama administration on notice Monday that they plan to sue if federal agencies don’t make a decision on designating critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles that nest in Florida.

Florida’s loggerheads, which are listed as a threatened species one step short of endangered status, face threats from entanglement in fishing gear and loss of nesting habitat to development and sea level rise.

Threatened and endangered species are more likely to recover if they have critical habitat protected so their population can expand, Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney Catherine Kilduff said.

“This is about looking forward and how things are going to change in our coastal communities,” Kilduff said.

Critical habitat designation, a provision of the federal Endangered Species Act, adds a layer of federal regulatory oversight. Rather than just protecting individual animals, the designation would require that activities that require federal permits not “result in the destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat.

Naples Mayor John Sorey said he worries that a critical habitat designation could curtail beach access and complicate projects to add sand to the beach. He called a critical habitat designation “unnecessary additional effort.”

“I feel like we’re doing a great deal already,” Sorey said.

Scientists estimate that the Northwest Atlantic population of loggerheads, which include Southwest Florida’s population, has 60,000 mature adults.

Florida beaches host the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the United States, but nesting numbers have declined by 40 percent since 1998 before showing recent signs of rebounding. In 2011, sea turtle monitors counted 850 nests on Southwest Florida beaches from south Lee County to Cape Romano.

Besides protecting nesting beaches, the critical habitat designation could also could cover feeding areas and migration routes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Kilduff said the marine designation could lead to new limits on when and where commercial fishermen could put out nets or longlines.

Federal fisheries managers already use such limits as a way to rebuild fisheries and require shrimpers to have escape hatches in their nets for sea turtles. Critical habitat would be more effective, Kilduff said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated 42,000 square miles of critical habitat off the Pacific Coast earlier this year to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles.

NOAA interpreted the rules for critical habitat to not affect fishing or boating, but Kilduff said conservation groups challenge that.

“We believe it’s still appropriate,” she said.

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