(FloridaToday.com) - Federal regulators plan to designate more than 700 miles of beach from North Carolina to Mississippi — including most of Brevard County's shoreline, as well as large swaths of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico — as "critical habitat" for threatened loggerhead sea turtles.
The rule would have little effect on most beachfront property owners or fishermen, federal officials say.
But in some cases, people who look to build or repair certain seawalls will face additional scrutiny from wildlife officials to ensure the walls do not harm critical loggerhead habitat.
And fishermen worry stricter rules will one day result.
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"Any designation like that gets you to tune your radar a bit tighter," said Jerry Sansom, executive director of the Organized Fisherman of Florida, which represents several hundred commercial fishermen. "Anytime the feds do new designating, they always seem to want to come behind that and put additional regulations."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the critical habitat areas Wednesday and will publish them in the Federal Register today, with the designated areas taking effect in 30 days.
GALLERY: Loggerhead turtles
The critical habitat areas include Kennedy Space Center, Canaveral National Seashore and shoreline south of Patrick Air Force Base, extending into northern Indian River County. But beaches along Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Patrick Air Force Base and several other military bases are not included because those already have natural resource-management plans in place to conserve loggerhead sea turtles. The beach between Patrick and CCAFS also isn't included, but offshore loggerhead breeding, migratory and Sargassum seaweed habitats are.
The critical habitat areas include beaches in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. These beaches account for 48 percent of 1,530 miles of coastal beach shoreline used by loggerheads and 84 percent of the documented numbers of nests within those states.
The critical habitat also includes nearshore areas from North Carolina to Mississippi, migratory corridors off Florida and offshore Sargassum seaweed habitats where juvenile turtles feed in the western Gulf of Mexico and in the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean.
In all, the critial habitat areas on the ocean and gulf total 317,544 square miles.
Because sea turtles are already protected, the critical habitat designations are expected to have negligible impact on beach use and access, federal officials said. Nor will they further restrict non-federal lands, unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved, such as those for beach renourishment.
The habitat designations add another level of federal review for beach renourishment, dredging of inlets and other projects that get federal funding or have other federal involvement. But the designations would not affect already approved federal beach renourishment projects, such as those in Brevard. Seawall projects that require an Army Corps of Engineers permit — basically those built below the mean high tide line — would also be reviewed with increased scrutiny by federal wildlife officials.
The Endangered Species Act requires NOAA and the wildlife service to designate "critical habitat" when a species is listed as threatened or endangered, or within a year if critical habitat is not determinable at that time.
Critical habitat is defined as areas with features essential to the conservation of a listed species. The designations do not create preserves or refuges or affect land ownership, federal officials said.
Loggerheads were originally listed as threatened in 1978 worldwide. But federal officials revised the species' listing status in 2011, dividing loggerheads into nine distinct populations, including one in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and another in the North Pacific Ocean, the only two populations under United States jurisdiction.
The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle in southeastern U.S. It is a long-lived, slow-growing species. Threats to loggerheads include seawalls and other beach alterations that obstruct its nesting, vessel strikes and accidental capture in fishing nets and other gear — which kills 1,000 to 10,000 loggerheads a year.
"This identifies those areas that have the greatest conservation value, long term," said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wednesday's designation resulted from litigation brought by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
The 20-mile coastal section from Melbourne Beach south to Wabasso Beach is the most important nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere and the second most important nesting beach in the world. The Brevard portion of the refuge has about 10,000 loggerhead nests a year. Countywide, there are more than 20,000 loggerhead nests a year.
Violators who disturb protected sea turtles can be reported to 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or the office of NOAA Law Enforcement 1-800-853-1964.
Source: FLORIDA TODAY research
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To view the final NOAA Fisheries rule for marine critical habitat, visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/criticalhabitat_loggerhead.htm.
Area of critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles
• Breeding areas — 4,498 square miles
• Migratory areas — 9,210 square miles
• Nearshore reproductive areas — 814 square miles
• Overwintering areas — 4,276 square miles
• Sargassum areas — 302,266 square miles