SAN FRANCISCO, California -- A settlement filed today in federal court between conservation groups and the National Marine Fisheries Service requires the government to make a final rule protecting critical habitat for the endangered leatherback sea turtle by Nov. 15, 2011. As proposed, the rule will protect sea turtles in part of the area off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. If made final, it would represent the first sea turtle critical habitat ever designated in ocean waters off the continental shelf.
On Jan. 5, 2010, the Fisheries Service proposed to designate about 70,600 square miles (45 million acres) of ocean waters as critical habitat for leatherbacks, which have suffered steep declines in recent decades. The proposal responded to a 2007 legal petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network to protect key migratory and foraging habitat for these ancient turtles along the West Coast. On April 19, 2011, the conservation groups sued the government for its delay in finalizing the turtle's critical habitat.
"Leatherback sea turtles face so many threats as they migrate across the Pacific — from fishing gear and plastic pollution to climate change and ocean acidification," said Catherine Kilduff, a Center attorney. "Protecting the cool, nutrient-rich feeding grounds off the West Coast, and the pathways that lead to them, is crucial to ensuring leatherbacks' survival. The habitat protections will also benefit other marine species that depend on healthy Pacific waters — including whales, sharks and seabirds."
"Leatherbacks need a safe haven off our coast from the most serious threat to their survival — industrial fishing fleets that set miles of deadly nets and thousands of baited hooks," said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. "Turning a blind eye to impacts of commercial fishing fleets in these critical foraging areas is a major oversight and one we will continue to work to rectify so that the ancient, giant leatherbacks have a fighting chance to survive us."
In order to survive, leatherbacks need safe passage during their annual migration and protection of important feeding areas. The Fisheries Service included these elements in the proposed rule, which could limit activities that harm the leatherbacks' main food source or impede the turtles' migratory path. Habitat protections for the turtle don't take effect, though, until the agency publishes its final rule.
"The settlement filed today forces the National Marine Fisheries Service to make a long-overdue decision about protecting Pacific leatherbacks when they are in our waters," said Susan Murray, Pacific senior director at Oceana. "Endangered turtles face too many threats around the world. The U.S. needs to set the example of responsible stewardship for this iconic species when they are on our watch."
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 dates from the time of the dinosaurs, having survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged; now their kind risks disappearing from the planet.
Every summer and fall, western Pacific leatherbacks migrate from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to the waters of the U.S. Pacific to feed on jellyfish, eating 20 percent to 30 percent of their body weight (as many as 50 large jellyfish or about 200 liters of jellyfish) per day. This 12,000-mile journey is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile. During the trip, leatherbacks run 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.
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