Savannah Morning News, March 23, 2013
Georgia beaches 'critical' for loggerheads
Loggerhead sea turtles are on track to get many of their nesting beaches designated as critical habitat, including some in Chatham County.
Twenty-three miles of beach on Wassaw, Little Tybee and Ossabaw islands are among the 740 miles of East and Gulf coast beaches proposed for the designation Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency.
Beaches chosen were those able to support the highest density of nests among the genetically and geographically distinct populations of loggerheads, which typically return to the beach where they hatched or nearby to lay their eggs.
Last year, Ossabaw hosted 226 sea turtle nests; Wassaw had 139 and little Tybee had 15.
Loggerheads were listed as threatened more than 30 years ago. That listing was revised in 2011 from a single threatened species to nine distinct population segments.
Georgia’s nesting turtles are in the northern unit, which stretches from the Florida/Georgia border north to Virginia.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, initially lacked the data to determine critical habitat, a designation required by the Endangered Species Act.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected later this year to designate the marine portions of the critical habitat — likely the areas adjacent to critical beach habitat plus foraging areas offshore.
During a teleconference announcing the proposal Friday, Fish & Wildlife personnel stressed what the designation wouldn’t do.
“You’re not going to see any difference out on the beach,” said Sandy MacPherson, the service’s national sea turtle coordinator. “There will be no new signage, no new reserves or refuges.”
The designation adds an extra layer of review to projects with a federal component, including federal funding or permitting, that could impact the critical habitat.
Beach renourishment is one example, although no developed beaches are proposed as critical habitat in Georgia.
MacPherson downplayed the significance of critical habitat, emphasizing that protections were already in place with the loggerheads’ threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.
Why do it, then?
“This is a requirement under the Endangered Species Act,” she said. “It’s something we must do.”
Advocacy groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network, had sued to force the federal agencies to create the critical habitat designation.
MacPherson said the designation was already under way before the suit was filed.
There’s evidence that critical habitats provide added protection for species, said Amanda Keledjian of Oceana.
A 2005 study published in the journal BioScience concluded, “Species with critical habitat for two or more years were more than twice as likely to have an improving population trend in the late 1990s and less than half as likely to be declining in the early 1990s, as species without.”
The designation of critical habitat for piping plovers, a small shorebird, led to seasonal closures and protections for plover nests on beaches managed by the National Park Service, said Chuck Underwood of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Jaclyn Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity said critical habitat can be a tool for nonprofits such as her’s to force the federal government to protect threatened and endangered species to the full extent of the law. It’s also an educational tool.
“The designation calls attention to those areas that are most important,” she said.
Savannahnow.com, Savannah Morning News ©2013.
This article originally appeared here.
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