Petition Seeks Critical Habitat Designation off California and Oregon Coast for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle

SAN FRANCISCO Today, a coalition of environmental organizations formally petitioned the federal government to designate critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, a species whose frequent and deadly encounters with longline and gillnet fishing gear meant to catch swordfish have put it on a steep slide towards extinction.

The last members 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. Leatherbacks swim over 6,000 miles within a single year – the largest geographic range of any living marine reptile, and one of the longest known migrations for any species in the world.

Leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean have declined by more than 90% over the past three decades, primarily as a result of drowning in industrial longline and gillnet fisheries targeting swordfish, sharks, and tunas. 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.

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 for the 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 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network asks the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. agency in charge of protecting sea turtles in the ocean, to designate as critical habitat an area of ocean spanning from Big Sur, California to central Oregon. The proposed critical habitat, comprising roughly 200,000 square miles, is a food-rich upwelling area favored by many marine species, including the leatherback.

Areas designated as critical habitat must be managed for the recovery of endangered species. Congress emphasized the importance of critical habitat, recognizing that the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat, and recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to have improving population trends compared to species without it.

Sea turtles have been able to survive for millions of years with only their shells for protection. To survive the challenges of today, however, they will need more than that—they need help from all of us, said Ben Enticknap of Oceana. We know when and where leatherbacks are along our coastlines, and we know what the threats are to them while they are here. Designating this important area as critical habitat will ensure that no activities occur along our shores that would push these ancient and extraordinary animals further towards extinction.

The proposed critical habitat area is currently designated the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area by the National Marine Fisheries Service and closed to drift-gillnet fishing for swordfish during a three month period during the summer and fall when leatherbacks gather here to feed on jellyfish. However, the Fisheries Service has recently proposed to re-open this area to drift-gillnet and pelagic longline fishing.

If we dont want one of the oceans most inspiring species to go extinct on our watch, permanent habitat protection for the giant leatherback must be put into place. Right now, we’re continually having to fight another proposal to allow destructive fishing technologies inside the already designated Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area, said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The Endangered Species Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to respond to the petition within 90 days.

Photo/Forest Kim-Starr