U.S. Government Proposes More Than 70,000 Square Miles of Critical Habitat for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle off West Coast | Oceana

U.S. Government Proposes More Than 70,000 Square Miles of Critical Habitat for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle off West Coast

Press Release Date: January 5, 2010

Location: Washington, D.C.


Anna Baxter | email: abaxter@oceana.org
Anna Baxter

Today the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a proposed rule to designate more than 70,000 square miles of critical habitat for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles in the waters off of California, Oregon and Washington.

If adopted, this would be the first time critical habitat is designated for sea turtles in ocean waters off the continental United States. The proposal is in response to a petition submitted in September 2007 by Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, seeking greater protections for endangered leatherbacks and their critical foraging grounds and migratory corridors in U.S. Pacific waters.

The proposed rule will be open for public comments until March, after which NOAA must issue a final ruling on critical habitat within one year. “We have a duty to protect Pacific leatherbacks when they visit our shores, and today’s action brings us ever closer to fulfilling that obligation,” said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana.

“Critical habitat designation provides another tool for protecting these ancient creatures, but their survival still hinges on the U.S. fully protecting them in our waters to set a policy precedent for the world.” While today’s proposal will advance protections for leatherbacks and their critical habitat, there were some unfortunate exclusions of important geographic areas, as well as a failure to identify protections for leatherbacks from a primary threat, entanglement in commercial fishing gear.

The area proposed by NOAA stretches from Northern Washington to Southern California, but excludes a large expanse of foraging and migratory areas between the Umpqua River in Central Oregon and Point Arena in Northern California. The proposed rule also excludes consideration of fishing gear as a threat to migrating and feeding leatherbacks, even though incidental interaction with commercial fishing gear is a leading cause of death for this species.

“Today’s proposal marks the first step in making sure that these giant turtles have a safe and productive place to feed after their amazing swim across the entire Pacific Ocean,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“NOAA now needs to take the next step and improve its proposal by incorporating more of the species’ key habitat areas and addressing one of the worst threats to leatherback survival – entanglement in commercial fishing gear.”

Leatherbacks can grow up to nine feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds (the equivalent of three refrigerators). Every summer and fall, Pacific leatherbacks migrate from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to the ocean waters off the U.S. West Coast to feed on jellyfish. This 12,000 mile journey is the farthest known migration of any living marine reptile.

During that journey, leatherbacks face a gauntlet of threats across the Pacific, including capture in commercial fishing gear, ingestion of plastics, poaching, global warming and ocean acidification. Protection of their foraging habitats and migratory corridors is essential to the recovery of this imperiled species.

“Protecting these patches of ocean will help leatherbacks survive,” said Teri Shore, program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “But turning a blind eye to effects of allowing deadly fishing hooks in these critical areas is a major oversight.”

About the Petition: The critical habitat proposal comes after a lengthy series of efforts to protect leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast. Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network submitted a petition for the designation of critical habitat for Pacific leatherbacks on September 26, 2007.

The area the groups proposed for designation had already been determined by NOAA to be a Leatherback Conservation Area, where the use of certain fishing gear was prohibited during the foraging season. That determination itself was the result of a lawsuit in March of 2000 by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

NOAA received the current critical habitat petition on October 2, 2007 and was obligated to make a determination regarding how to proceed in response to the petition within one year. In May 2009, after more than a year and a half of agency delays, the groups filed a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to secure a definitive timeline for findings on the critical habitat petition.

Under the terms of the settlement, the conservation groups and NOAA eventually agreed that NOAA would make its decision by Dec. 31, 2009. Under the Endangered Species Act, when an area is designated as critical habitat, Federal agencies must ensure they do not fund, authorize or carry out any actions, including activities such as energy projects and aquaculture, which would harm that habitat.

The same settlement related to critical habitat also addressed the agency’s obligation to respond to petitions calling for loggerhead sea turtles in the Atlantic and Pacific to be listed as “endangered” instead of “threatened” under the ESA. NOAA is required to submit its determination about these petitions by February 19, 2010.