Tuesday, June 25, 2024

NOAA proposes to protect more sea turtle habitats in Southern California, across nation

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Endangered green sea turtles that in recent years have been found expanding into waters off Southern California could get more protection of their habitat, migration routes and forage areas.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday, July 18,  announced a proposal to designate “marine critical habitats” and “terrestrial critical habitats” throughout the Pacific and Atlantic oceans where the turtles are struggling. From San Diego Bay to Santa Monica Bay and around Catalina Island would be among the areas proposed for “marine critical habitats,” where the water out to 20 meters deep in the ocean would be included, but not the land along the coast.

  • NOAA is protecting more of the green sea turtle habitat...

    NOAA is protecting more of the green sea turtle habitat in Southern Califronia between San Diego Bay and Santa Monica Bay. The agency is also planning the protection of its migration route between San Diego Bay and Baja California in Mexico. Here is a photo of a green sea turtle that is part of a monitoring program at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. Photographed under the authority of NMFS ESA Permit number 18238. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen)

  • NOAA biologist Jeff Seminoff, leader of the Marine Turtle Ecology...

    NOAA biologist Jeff Seminoff, leader of the Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program, examines the belly of an Eastern Pacific Green Sea Turtle in Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge Seal Beach, CA, on Thursday, May 16, 2019. NOAA set up a net to catch and examines the sea turtles. Photographed under the authority of NMFS ESA Permit number 18238. The monitoring programs continues at the base. The sea turtles are getting more protection after several environmental agencies filed a lawsuit against NOAA and Fish and Wildlife for not doing more to protect the endangered species. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Endangered green sea turtles may get more habitat protection NOAA...

    Endangered green sea turtles may get more habitat protection NOAA announced on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The agency is expanding its critical habitat protection to include the turtles’ migration route to Baja, California in Mexico. Photographed under the authority of NMFS ESA Permit number 18238. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Endangered green sea turtles in Southern California could get new...

    Endangered green sea turtles in Southern California could get new protections for their habitats between San Diego Bay and Santa Monica Bay. The agency will review the plan and make a decision in October. (Green sea turtle photo by Ali Bayless, NOAA/NMFS/PIFSC)

The plans to expand the turtles’ habit protection could limit some federal projects such as dredging and other habitat disruptions in the nearshore waters. The area off Camp Pendleton from Oceanside to San Onofre would not be included.

Some of the more significant habitats to be protected include eel grass and other plants critical to the turtles’ survival that are found at San Diego Bay and Mission Bay in San Diego County, Seal Beach, Anaheim Bay, the San Gabriel River, Long Beach and between Palos Verdes up to Santa Monica.

The proposed action follows a settlement agreement reached after three environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sea Turtle Oversight Protection and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, filed a lawsuit in 2020 requesting greater protections for the endangered species.

The groups argued in their lawsuit that although the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, which share jurisdiction over sea turtles, previously determined that climate change and threats from sea level rise meant the turtles still needed Endangered Species Act protection, the agencies had failed to protect the turtle’s habitats.

In addition to the protections in waters off Southern California, NOAA is also proposing the extension of critical habitats to include shorelines in Florida, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Guam and Texas. In all, NOAA officials said the areas proposed for protection include about 8,850 acres of beaches and nearly 428,000 square miles of coastal waters.

The land areas being set aside under the Endangered Species Act are not expected to affect private landowners “unless they implement an action involving federal funds, permits or other activities,” NOAA officials said. The expanded habitats wouldn’t be considered a natural refuge or preserve and the public would not be kept from enjoying the outdoors, officials said.

Once the areas are designated, federal agencies would have to consult with NOAA or the wildlife agency to ensure actions they fund, authorize or undertake would not destroy or adversely modify the critical habitats, NOAA officials said. Much of the proposed critical habitat for the green sea turtle overlaps with existing critical habitat for other species.

“The government-to-government consultation provides an extra layer of protection,” Tina Fahy, sea turtle recovery coordinator with NOAA for the West Coast, said. “We know these residents are here now year-round.”

A proposal unique to Southern California is to make the turtles’ migration routes from San Diego Bay to Baja, Mexico, part of the critical habit designation despite the fact that it is not a foraging area. This means commercial fishermen will likely be prohibited from using lines or nets in the areas where the turtles migrate, Fahy said.

“Commercial fishing lines could impair their progress,” she said. “That’s very unique to Southern California. On the East Coast, they don’t have that.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries are holding public hearings and informational meetings on the proposed habitat designations and are accepting comments on the critical habitat proposals through Oct. 17. Find out more at www.fws.gov.

Representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity on Tuesday said they are “relieved the turtles will get the protection they need.”

“These graceful marine turtles have come a long way, but healthy habitats will be key to their survival,” Elise Bennett, who is the Florida and Caribbean director at the center, said, adding that the climate crisis and sea-level rise are already impacting the reptiles’ habitats and that the “threats will get worse.”

Typically found in tropical waters down in Mexico and farther south, the endangered turtles only traveled north into the water off Orange and Los Angeles counties more recently. In 2017, their appearances in Dana Point and Newport harbors was something of a phenomenon.

Building off of that start, authorities began restoring local wetlands in areas such as the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach and more of San Diego Bay. Now San Diego Bay and Mission Bay have a healthy population of turtles – one study found there were at least 60 sea turtles living in San Diego Bay.

“The area is so well traveled,” Fahy said, adding that she and other researchers are also studying the impacts of climate change to see how that is affecting the turtles’ movement up and down the coast of Southern California.

In 2019, when the Navy planned a new ammunition pier at the Seal Beach weapons station, NOAA scientists ran a study to determine what impacts the construction might have and found more sea turtles in the area than previously known. The turtles typically used a channel that stretches across the southern end of the base to Huntington Harbour, then ran under the Pacific Coast Highway bridge and into Anaheim Bay and then to the open ocean waters.

NOAA scientists, with support from the wildlife service and the Navy, are continuing to monitor the turtles who inhabit the waters, shoreline and marshes of the base.

The monitoring includes a combination of “turtle trapping and tagging,  satellite tracking on the bigger turtles, and DNA testing,” said Gregg Smith, the base spokesman.

“The process will continue through the end of our ammunition pier project, which is set to wrap up in about a year,” he said, adding that satellite tracking has added to the Navy’s understanding of local sea turtle migration patterns and reach.

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