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Conservation Groups Sue U.S. Government for Failure to Protect Sea Turtles

Endangered Pacific leatherbacks now returning to California ocean waters
remain in danger of extinction

San Francisco  – Endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles now returning to California’s coastal waters to feed on jellyfish could gain long overdue habitat protections to prevent their extinction under a lawsuit filed today by conservation groups against federal agencies in U. S. District Court in San Francisco. The lawsuit also seeks up-listing from threatened to endangered status for the quickly declining loggerhead sea turtle on both coasts of the U. S. under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). See the sea turtle complaintagainst National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The problem is that the U. S. government has violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to meet a 12-month legal deadline for responding to three separate petitions seeking stronger protections for leatherbacks and loggerheads filed in 2007 by Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana. See the petitions on Pacific leatherbacks, North Pacific loggerheads and Atlantic loggerheads.

“We’ll see the end of sea turtles in our lifetimes if they keep drowning in fishing nets and on hooks,” said Teri Shore, program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “To avoid extinction, the U.S. must enforce its own laws and protect sea turtles in the ocean and on nesting beaches.”

Through the lawsuit and petitions, the groups are pressuring NMFS and USFWS to:

– protect key migratory and foraging habitat for Pacific leatherback sea turtles (that swim from nesting beaches in Indonesia to West Coast waters) off the California and Oregon coasts by designating the area as critical habitat – which is required by law and has never been done.

– designate North Pacific loggerheads (which nest in Japan but forage in Southern California and Baja) as a distinct population and to strengthen their status from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

– designate Western North Atlantic loggerheads (which nest in Florida and Georgia) as a distinct population and to strengthen their status from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

– The petitions also call for increased protections in the loggerheads’ key nesting beaches and marine habitats.

“Loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles have roamed the oceans for thousands of years, but they might not make it into the next century if we don’t do more to protect them right now,” said Miyoko Sakashita, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Delaying protective actions while threats like being captured and killed by indiscriminate commercial fishing gear, nesting beach destruction, and climate change continue to accelerate makes it that much harder to pull the species back from the brink.”

“This is a classic example of the Fisheries Service dragging its feet,” said David Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Sea turtles can’t continue to wait for these essential protections. More sea turtles will be caught and killed with each passing day, pushing them closer to extinction.”

Numbering over 100,000 nesting females as recently as the early 1980s, Western Pacific leatherbacks are in rapid decline with current population estimates at between 2,000 to 5,700 nesting females. Pacific leatherback populations have declined by 90 percent over the past decade primarily due to accidental capture on longline fishing hooks for swordfish and tuna, destruction of nesting beaches. Nevertheless, swordfish and tuna fleets are expanding in the Pacific.

Loggerhead sea turtles have declined by at least 80 percent in the North Pacific and could become functionally extinct by the mid-21st century if additional protections are not put into place. Florida beaches, thought to host the second-largest loggerhead nesting population in the world, have seen a decline in nesting of more than 40 percent in the past decade.

Under the ESA, an endangered species is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A threatened species is one that is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range”

The ESA requires that when a species is listed as threatened or endangered that critical habitat for the species be designated. Critical habitat is defined as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed … on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection.”

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Turtle Island Restoration Network is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in Northern California northwest of San Francisco whose 10,000 members work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. For more information, visit www.SeaTurtles.org.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 35,000 members dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild lands. For more information, please visit www.biologicaldiversity.org.

Oceana campaigns to protect and restore the world’s oceans. Our teams of marine scientists, economists, lawyers and advocates win specific and concrete policy changes to reduce pollution and to prevent the irreversible collapse of fish populations, marine mammals and other sea life. Global in scope and dedicated to conservation, Oceana has campaigners based in North America, Europe and South America. More than 300,000 members and e-activists in over 150 countries have already joined Oceana. For more information, please visit www.oceana.org.