|© Doug Perrine/Seapics.com|
In response to a petition from Turtle Island Restoration Network Center, Center for Biological Diversity, and Oceana on December 27, 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of ocean species management, announced that it would examine whether waters off the California and Oregon coasts should be protected as critical habitat for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The formal petition is seeking critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act for an area of ocean spanning from Big Sur, California to central Oregon.
This 100-million year old species is the last member of an ancient lineage that has outlived the dinosaurs. Leatherbacks are ocean giants that grow to the size of a small automobile, dive more than half a mile deep, and migrate across the entire Pacific Ocean basin from their nesting grounds in New Guinea and Indonesia to feed in the rich waters off California and Oregon.
The proposed critical habitat, comprising roughly 200,000 square miles of ocean, is thought to be one of the most important foraging areas in the world for leatherback turtles, which feed on this area’s dense clusters of jellyfish. These waters are currently closed to drift-gillnet fishing for swordfish during the summer and fall when leatherbacks gather there to feed.
“Leatherback sea turtles survived the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but they are unlikely to survive our unsustainable appetite for swordfish,” said Brendan Cummings, staff attorney and oceans program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “If leatherbacks are to survive the coming decades, we must turn the waters off California and Oregon into a true sanctuary for these imperiled creatures. Designating critical habitat is a vital step towards that end.”
The Fisheries Service, however, has recently proposed to re-open the area to drift-gillnet and pelagic longline fishing. Renewed fishing would be a significant blow to efforts to stabilize their population.
“Leatherback turtles are under assault from modern industrial fishing methods, which set more than 1.4 billion baited hooks each and every year in the Pacific Ocean,” said Mike Milne of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “Without more protection and the creation of marine protected areas, these mysterious sea creatures will disappear in our lifetimes.”
The Pacific leatherback turtle’s nesting population has plummeted
from 91,000 in 1980 to fewer than 3,000 today. Scientists believe that their decline is primarily the result of hooking and drowning in industrial longline and gillnet fisheries aiming to catch swordfish and tuna. Marine debris and loss of nesting beaches due to global-warming-induced sea-level rise also threaten the leatherback. If current trends continue, Pacific leatherbacks are predicted to go extinct within the next few decades.
Fishing industry representatives and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have been pushing for swordfish longline fishing to be allowed in this area: one of the most important foraging areas in the world for the critically endangered Pacific leatherback.
Thanks to all the efforts of our members, scientists, NGO's, legislators and general public the issuing of the fishing permit to allow longline fishing has been unsuccessful. Therefore the Pacific leatherback can continue to forage safely for now in this area. In the meantime, we be pushing the NMFS to offically designate this area as Critical Habitat.
Click below to see a copy of Pacific leatherback critical habitat petition: