New federal protections will help safeguard 685 miles of beaches, including some in Beaufort County, and 300,000 square miles of open water frequented by loggerhead sea turtles.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized critical-habitat designations Wednesday for those areas along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, where the threatened species swims and nests.
The designation is the largest of its kind and further protects the turtles by limiting how federal agencies can use the region.
Before shipping or building in a critical habitat, federal agencies must consult with NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the project doesn't remove or mar the features necessary for the species' survival.
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The designation includes 79 miles and 22 nesting areas in South Carolina, including nesting areas in Beaufort County on Harbor Island and its smaller barrier islands of Little Capers, St. Phillips and Bay Point.
This year, the number of loggerheads nesting along Beaufort County beaches is in a "natural lull," in contrast with a record number of nests last year, according to local turtle patrols. However, the lull is nothing to fear because this year's nest counts are still in line with the turtles' long-term recovery, they said.
"There are up years and down years, and we haven't had a down year in a long time," said Janie Lackman of the Fripp Island Turtle Protection Program. "We're having a much lower year than last, but we're still having a good year."
The critical-habitat designations are the latest in the years-long efforts to rehabilitate loggerheads, which were first put on the endangered species list in 1978, said Amber Kuehn, manager of the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project.
Since 2000, the number of nests found on Hilton Head has steadily increased as a result of conservation efforts, and last year, the project found a record 339 nests, Kuehn said.
However, that number is down dramatically this year in Beaufort County and all along the East Coast, Kuehn and Lackman said.
Only 98 nests have been found so far on Hilton Head this year, compared with almost 220 for the same period in 2013, Kuehn said. On Fripp Island, Lackman and her team has found 30 nests this year, compared with 92 by the end of last year.
Loggerhead populations have natural lulls because it takes them 25 to 30 years to mature sexually. For example, nest numbers dropped dramatically on Hilton Head in 2004 and 2007, only to bounce back in 2005 and 2008, Kuehn said.
Also, this year's cold winter led to a late nesting start, and the recent heat will lead to faster incubation and hatching, shortening the nesting season, they said.
"It's still a good year; things are still looking up," Lackman said.
McClatchy Washington Bureau staff writer Stephanie Haven contributed to this report. Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.