SAN FRANCISCO— The National Marine Fisheries Service finalized protection of 40,000 square miles of critical ocean habitat off the shores of Washington, Oregon and California Friday for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The rule establishes critical habitat in areas where leatherbacks feed on jellyfish after swimming 6,000 miles across the ocean from nests in Indonesia. This is the first permanent safe haven for leatherbacks designated in continental U.S. waters and the largest area set aside to protect sea turtle habitat in the United States or its territories.
“Habitat protections are vital to the survival of leatherbacks. We urgently need migration safeguards for these ancient animals as they make the longest, most epic journey of any creature on the planet to get to our West Coast every year,” said Catherine Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The 40,000 protected square miles will be crucial to the survival of the giant turtles though they are far fewer than the 70,600 square miles originally proposed; unfortunately the final rule overlooks the need to protect turtles’ migratory paths from commercial fishing, water pollution and marine vessel traffic. The new regulation excludes protections for migration through these habitats and also excludes consideration of dangers to the turtles from fishing, such as mile-long drift nets used for swordfish off California.
“This is a major decision to protect feeding hotspots for endangered leatherback sea turtles, but the federal government failed to acknowledge that the turtles need safe passage to get there,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific project manager.
“Leatherbacks finally have a safe haven along our coast, but still face extinction due growing threats from fisheries, pollution and ship strikes,” said Teri Shore, program director at SeaTurtles.org in California.
Said California Assemblyman Paul Fong, who authored the state’s new shark fin ban, “In order to better educate the public and bring awareness to the conservation efforts needed to protect these remarkable creatures, I will be introducing legislation that will name the Pacific leatherback sea turtle as California’s state marine reptile.”
Mile-long drift gillnets and longline gear used to catch swordfish, sharks and tunas are the two types of fishing gear most commonly known to capture and kill leatherbacks. While current regulations restrict fishing to protect them, the Fisheries Service is currently considering expanding the use of that gear into areas important to the leatherback.
Critical habitat requires the government to avoid destruction by permitted activities. Any new wave energy, offshore drilling or coastal projects in the critical habitat areas requiring federal permits would require the Fisheries Service to assess and prevent harm to leatherback feeding areas and jellyfish. Species with critical habitat protected under the Endangered Species Act are twice as likely to be recovering as those without.
Friday’s final rule comes in response to a petition submitted in 2007 by Oceana, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center, followed by two years of delay by the agency, missing multiple legal deadlines specified in the Endangered Species Act.
The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow up to nine feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s; as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. The species dates from dinosaur time, having survived for 100 million years; now its kind risks disappearing from the planet.
Leatherback sea turtles feeding off the U.S. West Coast make the longest known migration of any reptile, across the Pacific Ocean, to feed on jellyfish in the ocean waters of the American Pacific, where they’re generally found in the summer and fall months.
Contact Info: Catherine Kilduff, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 644-8580, [email protected]
Ben Enticknap, Oceana, (503) 329-4465, [email protected]
Teri Shore, SeaTurtles.org (Turtle Island Restoration Network), (415) 663-8590 x 104, (707) 583-4428 [email protected]
Website : Center for Biological Diversity