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Lawsuit Seeks to Protect U.S. West Coast Waters for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

San Francisco — Conservation groups today filed a lawsuit against the federal government for missing a deadline to protect ocean waters where critically endangered leatherbacks feed on jellyfish along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. Specifically, the government failed to meet the Endangered Species Act deadline for finalizing the endangered turtle’s critical habitat, putting the survival of leatherbacks in jeopardy. Download the complaint.

“Leatherbacks need a safe haven here if they are to survive,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network in Olema, Marin County, California. “But turning a blind eye to sea turtle capture in commercial fishing fleets in these critical habitat areas is a major oversight.”

On Jan. 5, 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed to protect about 45 million acres (70,600 square miles) of ocean waters as critical habitat for leatherbacks. The proposal responded to a 2007 legal petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network to protect key migratory and foraging habitat for these ancient turtles along the U.S. West Coast. Download petition below. Map at left shows proposed Critical Habitat Area in color, inset in larger existing Leatherback Conservation Zone which prohibits drift gillnet fishing half the year.

“Leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific have declined upwards of 90% in the past three decades,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protecting habitat and reducing threats in their foraging areas off the coast of California will be a key toward their survival.”

Providing the leatherbacks with safe passage during their annual migration and protecting important feeding areas are crucial to the species’ conservation. NMFS included these elements in the proposed rule, which could limit activities that harm the leatherback’s main food source or impede the sea turtle’s migratory path; but habitat protections are unavailable to the turtles until the agency publishes its final rule, now overdue.

“The severe decline of leatherback sea turtles in our lifetime is a warning about our abuse of the oceans,” said Catherine Kilduff, a Center attorney. “These magnificent sea turtles desperately need protected habitat to swim and forage without encountering life-threatening fishing gear, plastic and pollution.”

“Critical habitat off the West Coast is essential for the Pacific leatherback’s continued survival,” said Whit Sheard, Pacific senior counsel at Oceana. “Endangered turtles face too many threats for the government to continue delaying protections.”

Pacific leatherback sea turtles have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s; as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow to be up to nine feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Every summer and fall, western Pacific leatherbacks migrate from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to the ocean waters off the U.S. West Coast to feed on jellyfish, eating 20 percent to 30 percent of their body weight (as many as 50 large jellyfish) per day. This 12,000-mile journey is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile. During their journey, leatherbacks run 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.

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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.

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

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 500,000 members and e-activists in over 150 countries have already joined Oceana. For more information, please visit www.oceana.org.