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West Florida Shelf Pipeline Serves as Sea Turtle Benthic Habitat based on In-Situ Towed Camera Observations

Heather A. Broadbent*, Sarah E. Grasty, Robert F. Hardy, Margaret M. Lamont, Kristen M. Hart, Chad Lembke, Jennifer L. Brizzolara, Steven Murawski

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The use of marine offshore benthic habitats by sea turtles is poorly characterized due to the difficulty of obtaining in-situ data. Understanding benthic habitat use that is important to the species’ reproduction, foraging or migrations is critical for guiding management decisions. A towed camera-based assessment survey system (C-BASS) equipped with environmental sensors was used to characterize and assess benthic habitats on the West Florida Shelf (WFS) from 2014 to 2018. During these cruises, sea turtles were opportunistically observed during the surveys and critical in-situ data such as spatiotemporal, species identification, habitat use, behavioral and environmental data were collected and evaluated. In total, 79 sea turtles were observed during 97 transects of approximately 2,700 km of seafloor, which was recorded on 380 hours of video. Several sea turtle species were spotted within the WFS, including loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas). These opportunistic sightings revealed an area of high use on the WFS, an anthropogenic structure known as the Gulfstream natural gas pipeline (GSPL). C-BASS survey results suggest that two sea turtle species (C. caretta and L. kempii) utilize this artificial structure primarily as a resting area. We emphasize the importance of combining habitat mapping techniques (towed underwater video and multibeam bathymetry/ backscatter) with tracking technology to better understand the fine-scale habitat use of sea turtles.