Sea turtle protections proposed for Lee, Collier

Stretches of Collier and South Lee county beaches would have a new layer of sea turtle protections under a proposal unveiled Friday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under legal pressure from environmental groups, proposed designating 740 miles of beaches from North Carolina to Mississippi as critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles. The agency is taking public comment on the proposal until May 24.

That includes 13.2 miles of beach from Big Hickory Pass in southern Lee County to Doctors Pass in Collier, 8.1 miles of beach on Keewaydin Island, 5.7 miles of beach on Cape Romano and almost five miles of beach on nine keys in the Ten Thousand Islands in Collier.

The designation, based on the number of nests per mile of beach, does not include Naples beach between Doctors Pass and Gordon Pass and does not include Marco Island.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida biologist David Addison said loggerhead nests on that stretch of Naples beach topped out at 79 in 2011 but last year saw a big jump to 143 nests.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service should withhold judgment (on not including that beach),” Addison said. “If those numbers hold, then Naples beach becomes more significant.”

Loggerheads are listed as a threatened species in Florida under the Endangered Species Act, one step short of endangered status. In 2010, regulators proposed listing Florida’s loggerhead population as endangered but later backed down.

Beach projects that require a federal environmental permit already must not jeopardize loggerhead populations. With the added designation, federal decisions also must not “result in the destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat.

Naples Mayor John Sorey said the additional regulation would only add time and cost to permitting for beach renourishment projects without really helping sea turtles.

"It's another one of those feel-good regulations that has no common sense," he said.

Loggerhead nesting bottomed out in 2007 in Florida before hitting a 24-year high in 2012 with surveyors counting more than 58,000 nests.

Southwest Florida was on track for a banner year for sea turtle nesting until tropical storms and heavy surf washed out hundreds of the nests.

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