Some locals and state officials say designating Bogue Banks and other North Carolina beaches as critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles is a bad idea.
That was the message that almost 40 speakers conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a two-hour public hearing Thursday night in Morehead City.
About 100 people attended the hearing.
It’s not that the beach residents don’t care about the turtles. Rather, they said, critical habitat designation would add unnecessary regulation.
And likely higher costs not reflected in the federal agency’s economic analysis.
Town Manager Brian Kramer used a February beach nourishment project in the town to illustrate the costly and extensive procedures and measures already required to protect sea turtles when conducting projects such as beach nourishment.
“This project was driven by environmental considerations in general and protection of sea turtles in particular,” Kramer said. “Turtles dictated when the project took place. Turtles dictated how the dredges had to move through the borrow site. Turtles dictated our financial risk. And turtles ultimately affected our costs and how much sand we placed on the beach.”
Kramer said the town paid: $41,668 to engineers for environmental assessments; $3,350 per day to a trawler that spread a net in front of the dredge to buffer sea turtles from potential injury; and $12,000 to a third-party biologist to be aboard the trawler to observe dredging and watch for turtles.
No turtles were injured.
“Existing regulations were costly. Existing regulations worked,” he said.
Community members said they want to, and already do a good job of protecting the sea turtles.
The concern is that critical habitat designation will add burdensome regulation that is not needed.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate 740 miles of shoreline along North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi as critical habitat for nesting for the Northwest Atlantic population of loggerhead sea turtles.
The designation would stretch 96 miles in North Carolina and include Bogue Banks and Topsail Island.
The designation does not create a wildlife refuge, reserve or park. Fish and Wildlife officials said it does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved.
Fish and Wildlife biologist Ann Marie Lauritsen said critical habitat already has been designated in the area for other species and has not prevented projects, such as beach nourishment.
“Critical habitat designation allows us to focus efforts (to protect the sea turtles) on these areas,” she said.
Tom Roller of Beaufort spoke in favor of the designation.
As long as loggerheads qualify for the critically endangered distinction, the potential for their regulation remains.
Opposition expressed at the public hearing included residents and local and state officials.
Braxton Davis, director of the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, spoke on behalf of Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla and raised concerns about the proposed designation.
Coastal management has carried out federal consistency reviews for 35 years, including other critical habitat proposals from the federal agency. The process allows a formal review process by the state and ensures proposals don’t contradict state rules.
To date, Davis said, the federal agency has declined to submit the proposed critical habitat designations for review by N.C. Coastal Management.
“As a result, our state is left to engage only through the public comment process,” he said. “After reaching out to my colleagues in all of the affected southeastern states from North Carolina to Mississippi, I can say that we are unanimous in requesting that you revisit your position on this, and submit the proposed rule through the appropriate process, which we believe is required under federal law.”
Several speakers expressed concern that the proposal is in reaction to potential legal action if there is not critical habitat designation.
“I understand this flows from the threat of litigation but as you’ve heard we’re doing a great job of protecting the turtles,” said Atlantic Beach Mayor Trace Cooper.
The public hearing was the final of three held this week in North Carolina and South Carolina on the proposal.