Of the different sea turtle species seen along the Georgia coast, green sea turtles are considered among the most at risk — they have a decreasing population trend and the population here is considered threatened, while others elsewhere are endangered, and thus protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. However, several conservation groups sued the federal government alleging a failure to designate critical habitat for the turtles and thus not meeting the government’s responsibility under the act.

The lawsuit, filed in the District of Columbia’s federal district court by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sea Turtle Oversight Protection and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, argues that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a deadline of March 23, 2016, to publish critical habitat determinations, and even had an additional year extension to get it done, and yet did not.

The groups state, “Green sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act because they are threatened by habitat loss from coastal development, beach armoring and sea level rise; disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting; marine pollution; watercraft strikes and as bycatch in fishing operations.

“Designated habitat would identify the most important areas for green sea turtles and provide a layer of protection preventing its destruction. The green sea turtle remains at risk until the services fulfill their statutory duties to designate the critical habitat necessary to support the turtle’s survival and recovery.”

The services proposed a new rule in 2015 that identified 11 distinct population segments for green sea turtles, and of those DSPs, listed the Central West Pacific, Central South Pacific and Mediterranean populations as endangered, while the other eight — including North Atlantic and South Atlantic — were threatened. The services have the jurisdiction to designate critical habitat for those populations in United States waters, which include the populations in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Central North Pacific, Central West Pacific, Central South Pacific and East Pacific.

The conservation groups argue that while the sea turtles don’t have protections because of the lack of critical habitat designations, the Trump administration is going forward with permitting processes and leasing processes for oil and gas exploration in these habitats, as is continued commercial fishing.

“To date, the services have neither proposed nor designated critical habitat for the endangered and threatened DSPs of green sea turtles,” the conservation groups state in the complaint. “Consequently, the services are in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“The services’ ongoing failure to designate critical habitat for the green sea turtle DSPs deprives these animals of protections to which they are legally entitled and leaves them at increased risk of injury and death in their most important habitat areas.”

While 2019 served as a record sea turtle nesting year for Georgia, researchers identified only 11 green sea turtle nests out of an overall 3,956. Ten of those nests were on Cumberland Island. Those nests ended the season with a 56.3 percent hatch success and a 47.6 percent emergence success, according to data submitted to seaturtle.org.

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