WASHINGTON — The Obama administration took steps Friday to protect the loggerhead sea turtle, downgrading the status of some populations from threatened to endangered.
The loggerhead sea turtles that nest on Florida beaches won't be upgraded to an endangered species, a decision that pleased fishing groups concerned about more restrictions, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
The change to "endangered" would have put the Atlantic turtles in the same category as the Florida panther and manatee, which draw a great deal of public attention because of their risk of extinction, the Sentinel said.
The loggerhead has been listed as threatened since 1978, but a decline in habitat and population in several areas of the world led marine scientists to review the classification.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the change, under which north Pacific turtles are among five groups to be listed as endangered. The northwest Atlantic population, which includes the southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts, remains among four others listed as threatened.
"What this means is that all loggerhead sea turtles are threatened or endangered. We're going in the wrong direction," said Doug Inkley, a senior wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va.
Millions of children and their parents know the loggerhead from two characters in the animated film Finding Nemo — Crush, Nemo's dad's surfer-dude friend, and his son, Squirt.
Inkley said he wasn't sure exactly why the classification didn't change for the northwest Atlantic loggerhead turtles, since a lot of the discussion revolved around it.
However, NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service can only take scientific information into account, Inkley said, excluding factors such as economic impact. But, he added, "habitat is very much an issue."
Some environmentalists said the government's decision didn't go far enough.
"The failure to recognize northwest Atlantic loggerheads are endangered ignores the massive impacts of the BP oil spill and increasing threats from shrimp trawl fisheries on this imperiled population," said Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. That group, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana all petitioned the government for increased protections for sea turtles in the north Pacific and northwest Atlantic in 2007.
Loggerhead turtles still face many obstacles, Inkley said, including commercial fishing, habitat loss, marine debris and climate change. Commercial fishermen are required to use turtle excluder devices to prevent catching them unintentionally.
DuBose Griffin, the sea turtle coordinator at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said she was still concerned about the decline of habitat in Florida, where 50,000 to 70,000 turtles nest every season.
The commercial fishing industry commented in opposition to proposed changes, said Jim Lecky, the NOAA Fisheries Service director for the Office of Protected Resources, but didn't influence the outcome.