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NOAA proposes to designate critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles in NW Atlantic and Gulf

In accordance with the statutory requirements of the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries today released for public comment a draft proposal to designate critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Critical habitat designations identify the habitat that is essential to endangered and threatened species.

Once finalized, critical habitat designation would not necessarily result in any restrictions on human activities. Only if an activity required federal actions, funding or permitting would the agency in question need to work with NOAA to avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to the species or its habitat.

Members of the public can now submit comments on the agency’s draft proposal to aid in the recovery of this species. Last year, the President directed that any potential future designations of critical habitat carefully consider all public comments on relevant science and economic impact, including those that suggest methods for minimizing regulatory burdens. Any critical habitat designation will include a full analysis of economic impact, including impact on jobs, and will strive, to the extent permitted by law, to avoid unnecessary burdens and costs on states, tribes, localities, and the private sector.

“Loggerhead sea turtles are vulnerable to a variety of hazards that could threaten them,” said Sam Rauch, acting NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries. “When developing this proposal, NOAA Fisheries carefully examined a number of factors, including the unique biology and life history needs of the species as well as economic impacts. With assistance from the public, we can identify the right habitat these animals need to survive for decades to come.”

In 2007, NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received legal petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Turtle Island Restoration Network and Oceana, requesting that loggerhead turtles in the North Pacific and the Northwest Atlantic be reclassified as endangered distinct population segments, and that critical habitat be designated. These petitions prompted a formal review of the status of the turtles under the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Following detailed reviews by scientific experts, in 2011, NOAA Fisheries changed the listing of loggerhead sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act from a single threatened species to nine distinct population segments Two of these segments occur in United States’ waters, in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, where the turtles are threatened, and the north Pacific Ocean, where they are endangered.

The critical habitat proposed today for designation includes some nearshore reproductive habitat (areas directly off of nesting/hatching beaches from North Carolina through Mississippi), winter habitat (North Carolina), breeding habitat (Florida), and constricted migratory corridors (North Carolina and Florida).

No critical habitat is proposed for designation within the north Pacific Ocean segment. Areas under U.S. jurisdiction around Hawaii and along the U.S. west coast represent a very small percentage of suitable loggerhead habitat and do not meet the definition of critical habitat.

Written comments on the proposed regulations filed today must be sent to NOAA Fisheries no later than September 16, 2013.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service will consider public comments and any new information submitted during this period as it develops a final rule.

The public may submit comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at:
www.regulations.gov<http> or by visiting the comment page on the Office of Protected Resources website at: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/comment.htm<http>.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service will also accept written comments mailed to: Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910; or faxed to: 301-713-4060.

Background

Loggerhead sea turtles were listed as threatened throughout their range in 1978. In 2008, a biological review team of scientists identified nine biologically discrete and significant DPSs. In 2011, NOAA Fisheries issued a final rule changing the listing of loggerhead sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act from a single threatened species to nine distinct population segments.

Under the ESA, an “endangered” species is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A ‘threatened” species is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

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