Federal Government to Hold Public Meeting on Proposed Leatherback Sea Turtle Critical Habitat

Sea turtle activists rally for a public meeting to receive comments on a proposed NMFS rule to designate critical habitat for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Reacting to a petition originally filed by environmental organizations, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will hold a public hearing on designation of critical habitat off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington for the endangered Pacific leatherback turtle. On Thursday February 18, environmental organizations will testify in San Jose to push for a stronger critical habitat designation for these critically endangered sea turtles.

The Turtle Island Restoration Network petitioned NMFS back in 2007, with allies Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity, seeking greater protections for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles in critical foraging grounds and migratory corridors off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. According to leading scientists, Pacific leatherback populations declined 90% in the last two decades. Sea turtle activists worry the current actions, prompted in 2007 and now coming to public comment in 2010, may be too late to save the endangered turtles.

“To avoid extinction, the U.S. must enforce its own environmental laws and protect sea turtles in our oceans” said Teri Shore, program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We’ll see the end of Pacific leatherback sea turtles in our lifetimes if they are not given protected areas to feed. The U.S. must begin to lead international efforts on protective and sustainable ocean policy.”

The ESA requires the federal government to protect habitat that is critical to the survival and recovery of endangered species like the Pacific leatherback, whose populations have crashed in recent decades due to commercial fishery bycatch death and injury, poaching of eggs at nesting beaches, and pollution of the oceans from plastic debris, chemicals, and light sources that cause hatchlings to wander inland instead of to the sea. Pacific leatherbacks breed and nest in tropical waters, and as adults migrate to upwelling zones off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington to forage on their favorite food, jellyfish. The huge leatherbacks, which can weigh over 1,000 lbs and dive almost a mile deep, are known to eat hundreds of pounds of jellyfish each day when offshore of California. NMFS aerial surveys show consist congregation of the endangered turtle off of San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay.

“We are organizing Bay Area conservation activists to join us an hour before the public meeting to send a strong message that we demand leatherback sea turtles receive the greatest protections available offshore of California” said Chris Pincetich, Campaign Leader at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

The NMFS proposed rule designates more than 70,000 square miles of critical habitat for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles in the waters off the West Coast. If adopted, this would be the first time critical habitat is designated for sea turtles in ocean waters off the continental United States. According to NMFS, the migration and foraging of leatherbacks will need to be protected from the impacts of polluted municipal discharges, pesticide runoff, oils spills, and permanent ocean structures. However, conservationists are concerned that a gaping hole exists in the proposed critical habitat in northern California and southern Oregon and that the effects of commercial fishing practices are not addressed. The area proposed is much smaller than the existing Leatherback Conservation Area totaling 200,000 square miles along the coast that is closed to gillnet fishing six months of the year to protect leatherbacks.

The NMFS public meeting will take place at the downtown San Jose Marriott on Thursday, February 18 from 3-5 pm and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project activists plan to meet there at 2 pm for an organized rally of leatherback conservation supporters.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is part of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 17,000 activist contacts and members work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world.