Virtually all Atlantic Ocean waters off the Florida Keys become a designated critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles beginning Aug. 11.
"This is great news for our loggerheads," said Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. "They need this protected area."
The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, made in response to a lawsuit filed by marine conservation groups, designates more than 300,000 square miles of ocean in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico as essential breeding and feeding habitat for the protected turtles.
Rules unveiled July 9 also designate 685 miles of upland shorelines in six states as recognized nesting areas.
In the Keys, the designated nesting sites include 2.6 miles of Atlantic shoreline on Long Key and 2.3 miles on Bahia Honda Key, along with several areas in the Dry Tortugas and Marquesas, plus mainland Monroe County. However, other beaches have nests, for example, Sombrero Beach in Marathon.
The designation "will maximize conservation efforts by protecting turtles on land and sea, offering hope for recovery," said attorney Jaclyn Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity.
That center, along with Oceana and other conservation groups, filed suit under the Endangered Species Act contending that federal agencies had not moved to safeguard habitat needed by loggerhead turtles.
In general terms, the designation affects activities by federal agencies. No federal money can be spent on projects that would reduce the habitat. Military operations, such as at Naval Air Station Key West, are excluded.
Mike Roberts, Monroe County senior administrator of environmental resources, was reviewing the decision this week.
"Given the county's existing ordinances on [turtle] nesting beaches, I can't imagine this will have any particularly significant effect" on most waterfront areas, Roberts said.
Most of the sandy beaches needed for nesting by sea turtles already are protected, he said.
In other Keys areas designated as critical habitat for protected species like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key deer, he said, "The vast majority of properties are on federal lands. So the impacts to private lands have been fairly minimal."
The large areas of ocean listed as essential to the loggerhead species survival create "the largest designation of critical habitat ever," according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The "Southern Florida Constricted Migratory Corridor" runs from the northern boundary of Palm Beach County south to off Key West, covering waters out to the 200-meter depth contour.
"Migrating thousands of miles in the course of their lifetimes, loggerheads face persistent threats from fishing gear, pollution and climate change," Oceana marine scientist Amanda Keledjian said. "This critical habitat designation is essential for the future survival and recovery of sea turtles in the U.S."
The designation could affect any offshore drilling in the area. Fishing activities were cited as a possible impact on turtles no specifics were outlined.