Missed deadline for critical habitat puts Pacific leatherbacks at risk

SAN FRANCISCO— A court-ordered deadline to enact long-overdue protections for Pacific leatherback sea turtles off the U.S. West Coast expired today, as federal regulators continued to ignore the plight of this critically endangered species.  It was the second missed deadline in 2011 for implementation of the final critical habitat rule. Without the strict protections required by the Federal court, leatherbacks remain vulnerable to deadly threats from the high by-kill activities of industrial fishing, coastal pollution, offshore energy development and aquaculture.   Instead, the National Marine Fisheries Service has requested another extension from the court, without offering any reasonable justification for the delay.

“If your goal was to exterminate the leatherback sea turtle, you couldn’t come up with a better strategy,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of SeaTurtles.org at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Without a safe haven to replenish their energy, a species that has plied the world’s oceans for 100 million years will go extinct within a decade, and this sort of administrative sleep-walking will be the direct cause.” Leatherbacks forage off the coast of California, feeding on jellyfish in preparation for their return journey to nesting beaches in Indonesia.

Characterized by Steiner as “the appearance of deliberate inaction in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that delay is a formula for extinction,” the failure by the NMFS marks a new low point in the campaign to save the Pacific Leatherback. SeaTurtles.org and its allies thus seek to deny today’s attempt by the Fisheries Service to extend their deadline, and do so with great urgency: Four years of repeatedly missed deadlines, lawsuits and a settlement reached at the start of this year gave the Fisheries Service eleven additional months to finalize overdue critical habitat protections for the imperiled sea turtles.

“Leatherbacks offshore of California could disappear in less than ten years without protected habitat,” said Chris Pincetich, Ph.D., marine biologist with SeaTurtles.org. “There’s no excuse for another delay. Sightings of leatherbacks are unforgettable experiences that boost the local eco-tour economy.”

In order to survive, leatherbacks need safe passage from nesting beaches 6,000 miles away in remote Indonesia in the western Pacific to feeding hotspots in waters off California, Oregon and Washington. The Fisheries Service proposed 70,000 square miles of critical habitat, with protections for key migratory corridors and feeding areas, that was originally scheduled to take effect January 5, 2011.

Once established, habitat protection could limit activities that harm the leatherbacks’ main prey, jellyfish, or impede their migratory path. Power plant intake pipes, which destroy seasonal jellyfish populations, and plastic pollution, which is deadly to sea turtles when they mistake it for food, may come under increased scrutiny under the critical habitat final rule.

The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow to be up to eight feet long and weigh up to 1,800 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.  SeaTurtles.org’s Leatherback Watch Program documented over twenty sightings of leatherbacks along the west coast this summer alone. The species has survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged; now their kind risks disappearing from the planet.

SeaTurtles.org is joined by Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity in its petition before the Court on this issue.


Turtle Island Restoration Network is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 35,000 members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. For more information, visit www.SeaTurtles.org.

Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 500,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org