SAN FRANCISCO- The U.S. government announced today that it is considering listing loggerhead sea turtles found off the U.S. West Coast as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The action comes in response to a formal petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network in July 2007 that aimed to increase protections for loggerhead sea turtles. The petition sought to have North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act and to have areas along the California coast and off Hawaii designated as critical habitat for the species.

Loggerhead sea turtles in the North Pacific nest in Japan, but cross the Pacific to feed in the rich waters off the coast of California and Baja California, Mexico. These ancient animals, which can live for a century or more, have swum the Earth’s oceans since the days of dinosaurs. However, in the past 25 years populations have declined by over 80 percent, with fewer than 1,000 females returning to their natal beaches to nest each year.

The primary threat to loggerhead sea turtles is pelagic longline fishing. Longline fishing vessels seeking swordfish and tuna each deploy several thousand baited hooks on fishing lines that can extend for more than 60 miles. Over a billion longline hooks are set in the world’s oceans each year, catching and killing not just swordfish and tuna but thousands of sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, and sharks.

“The survival of loggerheads will depend on preventing sea turtles from drowning in fishing gear,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The decision to consider listing the loggerheads as endangered marks a first step toward heightened protections in the Pacific.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency reviewing the status of the loggerheads, determined that an endangered listing may be warranted for this population and will begin a full review of the loggerhead’s status to determine if it is endangered. At the same time, the agency is considering approval of a permit that would allow an “experimental” longline fishery for swordfish off the California and Oregon coasts next year. The permit is the first step toward establishing a full-scale industrial longline fishery off the West Coast. A similar fishery is operated out of Hawaii and is responsible for the deaths of numerous whales in addition to sea turtles.

“Rather than opening the waters off California and Oregon to deadly industrial fishing fleets, we should be protecting these areas as critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles and other imperiled wildlife,” said Karen Steele of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

This already diminished population of sea turtles faces further threats from global warming. Rising seas and coastal erosion threaten to eliminate loggerhead nesting beaches. Meanwhile, global warming skews the ratio of female and male offspring, with primarily females hatching when temperatures increase.

North Pacific loggerheads are geographically isolated and genetically distinct from loggerheads that occur in the Atlantic, Indian, and South Pacific Oceans. Loggerhead sea turtles worldwide are currently listed as threatened throughout their range under the Endangered Species Act. A separate endangered listing for the more imperiled North Pacific loggerheads would trigger additional protections under U.S. law, including the designation of critical habitat.

Today’s announcement is important for the survival of the sea turtles; a full review of the status of the North Pacific loggerhead will now begin that could lead to an endangered listing and protection of critical habitat in the Pacific. Conservation groups filed a separate petition November 15th to uplist loggerhead sea turtles found on the East Coast of the United States. Today’s finding highlights that all loggerhead populations may need an updated status review and separate management for their recovery.

Click  here to read the Federal Register notice.