Most of Duval County’s oceanfront south of the St. Johns River was labeled critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles Wednesday as part of a years-long effort to protect the ancient animals.


Federal wildlife officials are hoping most people will barely notice.

Rules that control nighttime lights and keep vehicles and people away from turtle nests were written years ago and aren’t scheduled to change.

“All of those measures remain in place. … Wouldn’t get tougher, wouldn’t get easier,” said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Jacksonville.

But labeling areas that are important to loggerheads – there were dozens of those spots designated around the South, covering 685 miles – was a priority for turtle defenders who pointed out the Endangered Species Act requires the government to pick key spots to focus protection efforts.

“This critical habitat designation is essential for the future survival and recovery of sea turtles in the U.S. and will ensure that populations are more resilient,” said Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at the advocacy group Oceana, one of several groups that had sued for habitat protections and circulated written comments from key staffers.

Some populations of loggerheads are considered endangered while others are deemed by authorities to be threatened.

Thirty-three stretches of Florida shoreline were labeled critical Wednesday, though the final selections didn’t stretch as far as once planned.

The critical designation in Duval County, 7.1 miles from the southern end of Hanna Park to the St. Johns County line, was proposed a year ago to cover more than 15 miles of beach in both counties. The St. Johns ground was dropped during a review because the county already had a conservation plan that federal officials concluded would do as much good.

Jacksonville isn’t a turtle mecca anyway when compared to some of the state’s top nesting grounds. The 186 Duval County nests counted in 2013 would barely be noticed beside the 24,630 nests that state records say were recorded in Brevard County or the 16,986 in Palm Beach County.

But keeping lights, litter and man-made debris to a minimum can only help, said Jennifer Burns, who has spent 14 years checking for nests with the Beaches Sea Turtle Patrol.

During the first two months of this year’s nesting season, which started May 1 and ended Oct. 31, patrol volunteers logged 27 nests and 14 “false crawls,” marks that a turtle came ashore but left without nesting. There’s no way to know why the turtle left, but Burns said the state’s best nesting grounds are also the most natural, unlit ones. If there are things that can be done to keep parts of Jacksonville’s beaches unspoiled, she said, it just makes sense to do that.

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263