Endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles that visit California, Oregon and Washington's coastal waters to feed on jellyfish could gain long overdue habitat protections to prevent their extinction under a new government proposal. 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 the West Coast. If adopted, this would be the first time critical habitat is designated for sea turtles in ocean waters off the continental United States. See the proposed rule.
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.
“Protecting these coastal waters will help leatherbacks survive,” said Teri Shore, program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network in Forest Knolls, Calif. "But turning a blind eye to sea turtle capture in commercial fishing fleets in these critical areas is a major oversight.”
The protected 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 area proposed is much smaller than the existing Leatherback Conservation Area totaling 200,000 square miles along the coast that is closed to gillnet fishing six months of the year to protect leatherbacks - achieved in March 2000 as a result of a lawsuit by Turtle Island Restoration Network and Center for Biological Diversity.
“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.”
The critical habitat designation as proposed would prevent or modify the extent of activities in the specified waters that could harm the leatherback's main food source (jellyfish) or impede the sea turtle's migratory path into the area such as new permanent structures. Specific activities identified were: pollution from point sources (e.g. National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)); runoff from agricultural pesticide use; oil spills; power plants; aquaculture; desalination plants; tidal energy or wave energy projects; and liquid natural gas (LNG) projects.
However, NOAA eliminated from the critical habitat as proposed other potentially harmful activities to leatherback habitat and life cycle: commercial fishing such as longlines and drift gillnets, vessel traffic, ocean acidification, water quality and wind power either because the activity was not considered harmful to leatherback habitat and life cycle (i.e., commercial fisheries and vessel traffic) or due to lack of information (i.e., ocean acidification, water quality and wind power).
The proposal is in response to a petition submitted in September 2007 by Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana 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 early March, after which NOAA must issue a final ruling on critical habitat within one year.
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 6,000- 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. Leatherbacks can grow up to nine feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds (the equivalent of three refrigerators).
"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 policy precedent for the world."
About the Petition
The critical habitat proposal comes after a lengthy series of efforts to protect leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast. Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana 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 accepted 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.