Loggerheads could see critical habitat designation in SC

sbowman@islandpacket.comAugust 18, 2013 

Loggerhead sea turtles might soon be coming into some new beachfront property -- 79 miles of shoreline along South Carolina's coast, that is.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to designate 750 miles of beaches from North Carolina to Mississippi as critical habitat for loggerheads. This includes 79 miles and 22 nesting areas in South Carolina, from Georgetown County south to Beaufort County.

Four of those nesting areas are in Beaufort County: they include beaches on Harbor Island, Little Capers Island, St. Phillips Island and Bay Point Island.

"There was lots of data and analysis that went into choosing the beaches to designate," agency spokesman Charles Underwood said. "We thought the beaches we chose were important because they gave us the greatest conservation value for both recovery and long-term protection of the species."

Underwood said the designation does not create any new restrictions or more authority for the agency. What it does do, he said, is add a few more minutes to conversations with project managers, municipalities, counties and states to make sure their projects minimally impact the loggerheads' nesting areas.

The agency first proposed the designation in March and has had several comment periods -- one that opened in July and closes Sept. 16 -- to gather public response. It also had a public hearing Aug. 6 in Charleston to answer questions and concerns of residents, municipalities and the states.

Underwood said a decision could come by next summer, and the agency will use comments and data to see whether it needs to change the beaches it proposed.

So far this season, 4,981 sea turtle nests have been reported in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Of that number, which tops last year's record 4,600 loggerhead nests, 335 nests have been recorded on the Hilton Head Island beaches, said Amber Kuehn, the sea turtle protection project manager for the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Current totals for Beaufort County were not immediately available, but 663 nests have been laid on Beaufort County beaches this year, according to information posted Aug. 11 on the Fripp Island Turtle Team Facebook page. That number included 123 nests on Hunting Island and 90 on Fripp.

Kuehn said the designation would complement the Beach Front Lighting ordinance already in place along many of the beaches in Beaufort County. This ordinance helps limit beachfront lighting during the nesting season so hatchlings will find their way to the ocean and not be disoriented by the lights.

The agency estimated it will cost about $150,000 a year to administer the Endangered Species Act on the beaches. Underwood said that cost, which will mostly be covered federally, comes from the "few more minutes" of consultations that will take place to ensure the impact of projects are minimal to nesting habitats.

Nicholas Mallos, a conservation biologist with the Ocean Conservancy, said the number of nests this year is exciting, but those counts fluctuate, so continued efforts to protect the threatened species can make a big impact.

"These turtles certainly face lots of threats already, so anything that can be put in place to reduce those threats and increase the survival rate is positive and a major contribution," Mallos said.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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