The National Marine Fisheries Service today finalized protection of 41,914 square miles of protected critical ocean habitat off the shores of Washington, Oregon and California for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The final 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 is the largest area set aside to protect sea turtle habitat in the United States or its territories.
However, the 41,914 square miles designated for protection is far less than the 70,600 square miles originally proposed. The final rule overlooks the need to protect migratory pathways from commercial fishing, water pollution and marine vessel traffic. The new regulation excludes any protections for the turtles’ migratory pathways leading into these habitats; it excludes any consideration of fishing impacts, such as mile-long drift nets used to target 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.
“Habitat protections are vital to the survival of leatherbacks, but this rule falls short of the goal. Sea turtles will continue to swim a gauntlet to get to the best feeding areas off our coast, dodging ship traffic, long nets and hooks,” said Catherine Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity.
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 leatherback sea turtles. While current regulations restrict fishing to protect these sea turtles, the Fisheries Service is currently developing proposals to expand the use of these fishing gears 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.
Today’s final protection 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 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 dates from the time of the dinosaurs, having survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged; now their kind risks disappearing from the planet.
The leatherback sea turtles feeding off the U.S. West Coast make the longest known migration of any reptile, across the Pacific Ocean where they nest on beaches in Papua, Indonesia. They make this great migration to feed on jellyfish in the productive ocean waters of the American Pacific. They are generally found off the West Coast in the summer and fall months.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. For more information, please visit www.biologicaldiversity.org.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 500,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.
Turtle Island Restoration Network is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 35,000 members and supporters work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. For more information, visit www.SeaTurtles.org.