The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued a proposed rule for the designation of critical habitat for the threatened Northwest Atlantic Ocean Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the loggerhead sea turtle.


This designation of critical habitat was fully expected as the follow-on to the 2011 final rule revising the listing of loggerhead sea turtles under the ESA from a single worldwide listing of the species as threatened to nine DPSs.  These DPS designations and this critical habitat designation proposal are all driven by litigation filed by the environmental community, notably the Center for Biological Diversity.   SSA provided extensive comments in opposition to the DPS designations and associated ESA up-listing proposals with the expert assistance of Dr. Benny Gallaway and attorney George Mannina.


The Agency has now proposed and is seeking public comment on the designation of 36 marine areas within the Northwest Atlantic Ocean DPS as critical habitat.  These areas contain one or a combination of nearshore reproductive habitat (off nesting beaches to 1.6 km (1 mile)), wintering habitat (offshore to as much as the 100 m depth contour), breeding habitat (offshore to as much as the 60 m depth contour) and constricted migratory corridors (offshore to as much as the 200 m depth contour).   The proposed rule also requests comment on whether to include foraging habitat and two very large areas that contain Sargassum habitat.


The area covered by the Northwest Atlantic Ocean DPS includes the entire area of the southeastern shrimp fishery from North Carolina to Texas.  The 36 discrete marine areas proposed for designation as critical habitat include areas off North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida east and west coasts, Alabama and Mississippi.


The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed terrestrial critical habitat (nesting beaches) in a separate rulemaking on March 25, 2013, and both agencies plan to combine their critical habitat designations into one final rule.  Many of the 36 marine critical habitat areas proposed here by NMFS directly coincide with the USFWS proposed terrestrial areas.


The list of descriptions of each of the proposed areas can be found in the proposed rule beginning on page 119 of the document.  These are followed by a set of graphic representations (maps) of each of the 36 areas beginning on page 132 of the document.  Note that it appears that the graphic for area 17 is missing and SSA has requested a copy from the agency.  The map of the Sargussum area for which comments are also requested can be found on page 67 of the document.


The Southern Shrimp Alliance will be carefully reviewing these proposed areas and their potential impacts on the shrimp industry, and will prepare and submit formal comments to NMFS within the 60-day comment period.


It is expected at this time that any final designations of critical habitat will trigger yet another NMFS Consultation pursuant to Section 7 of the ESA.  This will trigger the preparation of a new Biological Opinion which will include a determination of whether the shrimp fisheries jeopardize the continued existence of the loggerhead turtle Northwest Atlantic Ocean DPS, and whether the shrimp fisheries will adversely impact the critical habitat areas.  The new Biological Opinion will also include a new Incidental Take Statement that may include new and additional regulations governing shrimp fishing in these areas.  It is impossible to determine at this time what these regulations or their economic impacts might be, but it must be assumed that discrete closures in critical habitat areas are a real possibility.