The federal government today missed a court-ordered deadline to protect habitat for endangered leatherback sea turtles off the U.S. West Coast. Instead of publishing its final rule to protect the turtles, the National Marine Fisheries Service sought a delay from federal court, leaving increasingly rare leatherbacks vulnerable to threats from fishing, new coastal development, offshore energy and aquaculture.
“With only a few thousand Pacific leatherbacks remaining, time is of the essence,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s Pacific senior director. “Every wasted minute puts these magnificent creatures closer to extinction on our watch.”
“Delay is a recipe for extinction,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Critically endangered leatherbacks swim thousands of miles across the Pacific from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to the coast of California to feed. Without a safe haven to replenish their energy, these 100 million year old giants will go extinct on our watch."
Oceana, Turtle Island Restoration Network, and the Center for Biological Diversity have asked the court to deny this latest attempt by the Fisheries Service to delay protections for the ancient turtles. The request comes after years of repeatedly missed deadlines, lawsuits and a settlement agreement that already gave the Fisheries Service nearly an additional year — until Nov. 15, 2011 — to finalize overdue critical habitat protections for the imperiled sea turtles.
“Leatherbacks have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, but without habitat protection they could wink out in our lifetime,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center. “There’s no excuse for delay.”
In order to survive, leatherbacks need safe passage from nesting beaches 6,000 miles away in remote Indonesia in the western Pacific to feeding hotspots in Pacific Ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington. Protection of the key migratory corridors and feeding areas in these waters were elements of the critical habitat designation. Once established, habitat protection could limit activities that harm the leatherbacks’ main prey, jellyfish, or impede their migratory path.
The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow to be up to nine feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Pacific leatherback sea turtles have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s; as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. The species has survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged; now this species risks disappearing from the planet.