NAPLES — A renewed push for habitat protections for Florida's sea turtles is putting the ancient creatures on a crash course with fishermen and beach restoration advocates.
Environmental groups have put the Obama administration on notice that they plan to sue if federal agencies don't put a new layer of regulatory protections over beaches where loggerhead sea turtles nest in Florida and over waters where loggerheads feed off California and Florida.
The North Pacific population of loggerheads, which nest in Japan, is listed as endangered while Florida loggerheads are listed as a threatened species, one step short of endangered status. The listing became official in September 2011.
That triggered a requirement under the Endangered Species Act to designate critical habitat for both populations, but regulators said they needed a year to collect more data about where the designation should go.
Turtle advocates objected, saying the delay was unnecessary and violated the law. In April, they threatened to sue the agencies over the delay. Then, last month, they threatened to sue again — this time over missing the 12-month deadline.
"They aren't allowed any more outs," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups threatening a lawsuit. "They're just plain late now."
The group is joined by Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network in the possible lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with habitat protection offshore, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for habitat protections on the beach.
A critical habitat designation could add a layer of federal oversight to permitting for coastal development, beach renourishment and fisheries management.
Because loggerheads already are protected species, a project must not jeopardize their populations. A critical habitat designation would add a requirement that projects not "result in the destruction or adverse modification" of critical habitat.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood blamed the missed deadline on budget constraints and a workload weighed down by court-driven deadlines. A proposal should be ready in the "very near future," which could be early next year, he said.
Regulators are looking at which nesting beaches should be protected in Florida to give loggerheads the "biggest bang for the buck," Underwood said.
"I know they're working on it and I know they're very close," Underwood said.
Naples Mayor John Sorey said a critical habitat designation on local beaches would "significantly adversely affect" plans to fight coastal erosion by adding sand to the beach.
Beach projects already work around sea turtle nesting season from May to October, although the county is proposing to encroach on nesting season for two weeks for the next beach widening project scheduled to start in September 2013.
"I think we can intelligently take care of the turtles and still meet needs of renourishment," he said. "Everything in life is about balance."
Florida beaches, where more loggerheads nest than any other place in the United States, have seen a 40 percent drop in nests since 1998 but have begun to rebound. The North Pacific loggerheads have declined by some 80 percent over the past decade.
Loggerhead nesting hit a 24-year high in Florida this year, with surveyors counting more than 58,000 nests, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nesting hit a low of 24,000 nests in 2007.
In Southwest Florida, turtle monitors counted 200 nests this year in south Lee County; 85 of them were lost, many of them to tropical storms and heavy surf. That compares to 87 nests in 2011, none of which were lost.
In Collier County, monitors counted 814 nests on mainland beaches and on Marco Island, but almost 650 of them were washed out or flooded. That compares to 404 nests last year, of which 128 were washed out or flooded.
Despite the high rate of nest loss in 2012, turtle advocates were relieved to see the strong nesting numbers after a worrisome decade-long slide.
"Even though we lost a lot of nests, it's still encouraging to know they're out there and they'll be coming back," the county's sea turtle protection program manager Maura Kraus said.
Turtle advocates also envision protecting areas offshore that turtles use for foraging and protecting the migratory routes turtles use to get to and from nesting beaches.
Tagging studies are starting to unravel mysteries about where sea turtles go in between appearances on Florida beaches. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida tracked one wandering loggerhead more than 1,300 miles from its nesting beach on Keewaydin Island to the Bahamian island of Andros — about the distance from Naples to Cleveland.
Baby loggerheads that nest on Gulf beaches hitch a ride on Gulf currents to carry them through the Florida Straits and to the Sargasso Sea, a vast area in the Atlantic Ocean named for its floating mats of sargassum seaweed that protect the tiny turtles from predators until they are old enough to return to the beaches to nest.
Turtle advocates contend that an offshore critical habitat designation should trigger additional reviews of where and when commercial fishermen can work.
But when NOAA Fisheries 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 to not affect fishing or boating.
Environmental groups are using sea turtle protections as a weapon to put fishermen out of business, Southeastern Fishing Association executive director Bob Jones said.
"There is no end to the harm they want to do to harm people who have to work for a living," Jones said.