Yesterday, 300,000 square miles of ocean along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts was set aside as critical habitat in the largest designation ever in U.S. history. The ruling seeks to protect the nesting and roaming habitat of loggerhead sea turtles, which were declared endangered in 1978 and continue to struggle against threats from climate change, fishing nets and ocean pollution.

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About 84 percent of all nesting and roaming areas for the loggerhead exists in the newly-protected area from North Carolina to Mississippi and parts of Florida, along with a few beaches in six other states. The area makes up about 1,500 miles of shoreline and includes between 70,000 and 90,000 nesting sites. The announcement means that although the public can continue to access the designated areas, drilling, fisheries and other federal activity must be examined to determine the impact those activities are having on the turtles.

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Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, said that the move was necessary to protect loggerhead populations, which is important given the vital role that the turtle plays in ocean ecology. The turtles can live up to 40 years or more, but at least 50,000 turtles are caught every year in shrimp trawls in the Gulf of Mexico, tragically cutting their lives short. The new designation could help reduce that number and even rebuild turtle populations.

Via Reuters

Lead image via Shutterstock, image via Waldo Jaquith