Feds name Longboat Key - but not Anna Maria Island - 'critical habitat' for loggerhead sea turtles

kirby@bradenton.comJuly 10, 2014 

LONGBOAT KEY -- A total of 685 miles of beaches from Mississippi to North Carolina and more than 300,000 square miles of ocean have been designated a critical habitat for the endangered and threatened loggerhead sea turtle, including about 10 miles of beaches on Longboat Key.

Not included is Anna Maria Island.

As of this week, volunteers with Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch had identified about 200 loggerhead nests on the island this nesting season, which ends Oct. 31. Turtle Watch counted a record 370 nests on the island in 2013.

Hayley Rutger, spokeswoman for Mote Marine Laboratory, said she wasn't

surprised Longboat Key was named.

"We have monitored local nesting beaches for more than 30 years and tracked the migrations of numerous turtles at sea," she said. "Our data have indicated that Sarasota County beaches have the highest density of loggerhead nesting along Gulf."

Biologist Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said it's impossible to know for sure why one location would be chosen and not another, but he believes politics were involved. The center is one of three groups that sued the government to seek greater protections for loggerheads.

In all, 84 percent of turtle nesting areas were designated as critical habitat, a designation that does not limit access to beaches but requires review of federal activities in the area to ensure there are no potentially harmful impacts to species' survival and recovery.

"A political decision was made when they decided not to protect 100 percent," Steiner said. "Some locations might have had some strong resistance."

In addition to Longboat Key, 13 miles of Siesta and Casey keys and 16.1 miles of Venice beaches and Manasota Key were designated critical habitats.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed 88 nesting beaches in six states, stating beaches with the highest nesting density were selected.

The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administrations fisheries service listed marine areas, including waters just off beaches, winter habitat in North Carolina, breeding areas in Florida and narrow migration corridors between the two. It also listed mats of sargassum -- also known as sea holly and Gulf weed -- in the western Gulf of Mexico and U.S. waters within the Atlantic Gulf Stream.

Chuck Underwood, a public information officer for Fish and Wildlife, said they worked with state officials to designate beaches and reasons for failing to get a designation vary from location to location.

"The beaches that weren't named just lacked the elements required," Underwood said. "Either the number of nests were too low, or there was a long gap between nesting, or it occurs on a low-frequency basis."

The move to protect loggerheads is the largest designation of critical habitat in history, and follows a lawsuit in January 2013 by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network after the government did not respond to petitions dating to 2007 to strengthen protections for loggerhead populations.

"Protecting critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles helps assure the recovery of this gentle, ancient, mysterious species, as well as the local communities of the Gulf and Atlantic coast that also benefit from clean, healthy beachfronts and inland waters," Steiner said.

Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings leave nesting beaches and spend up to 12 years in the open ocean before returning to coastal areas. They stay there until they reach maturity around 35 years of age and seek out beaches where they hatched, in order to nest.

Because of their long migrations and dependence on those beaches, critical habitat designation that includes beaches as well as coastal and ocean waters is necessary for loggerheads' recovery, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Experts extimate about 1 in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive to sexual maturity.

A federal agency that names a critical habitat must be consulted before federal permits or contracts are issued there. The designation does not affect land ownership or create wildlife preserves or refuges.

-- This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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