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West Coast Waters Protected for Endangered Pacific Sea Turtles

New Safe Haven Protects Feeding Areas But Not Migratory Routes to California, Oregon, and Washington

SAN FRANCISCO— Nearly 42,000 square miles of ocean along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington that are critical feeding grounds for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle were granted new protections today by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The final federal regulation establishes critical habitat where leatherbacks feed on jellyfish after swimming 6,000 miles across the ocean from nests in Indonesia. This is the first permanent safe haven for leatherbacks designated in continental U.S. waters and is the largest area set aside to protect sea turtle habitat in the United States or its territories. Download the regulation here. The new protections take effect Feb. 26, 2012.

Any new wave energy, offshore drilling or coastal projects in the designated critical habitat would require the Fisheries Service to assess and prevent harm to leatherback feeding areas and jellyfish. Species with critical habitat protected under the Endangered Species Act are twice as likely to be recovering as those without.

“Leatherbacks finally have a safe haven along our coast, but still face extinction due to growing threats from fisheries, pollution and ship strikes,” said Teri Shore, program director at SeaTurtles.org in West Marin, California.

However, the 41,914 square miles of ocean designated for protection covers far less than the 70,000 square miles originally proposed for critical habitat. Today’s rule covers 16,910 square miles along California’s coast from Point Arena to Point Arguello out to a depth of 3,000 meters. The remaining area stretches from Cape Flattery, Washington to Cape Blanco, Oregon seaward to 2,000 meter depth contour.

The final rule overlooks the need to protect migratory pathways from commercial fishing, water pollution and marine vessel traffic. The new regulation excludes any protections for the turtles’ migratory pathways leading into these habitats; it excludes any consideration of fishing impacts, such as mile-long drift nets used to target swordfish off California.

“Though it is commendable that critical ocean habitats along the west coast are now being protected for the leatherback sea turtle, it fails to recognize the laborious journey these animals travel,” said California Assemblyman Paul Fong, who authored the state’s new shark fin ban. “In order to better educate the public and bring awareness to the conservation efforts needed to protect these remarkable creatures, I will be introducing legislation that will name the Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle as California’s State Marine Reptile.”

“Habitat protections are vital to the survival of leatherbacks. We urgently need migration safeguards for these ancient animals as they make the longest, most epic journey of any creature on the planet to get to our West Coast every year,” said Catherine Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.

“This is a major decision to protect feeding hotspots for endangered leatherback sea turtles, but the federal government failed to acknowledge that the turtles need safe passage to get there,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific project manager.

Today’s final protection comes in response to a petition submitted in 2007 by SeaTurtles.org, Oceana and the Center, followed by two years of delay by the agency, missing multiple legal deadlines specified in the Endangered Species Act.

Mile-long drift gillnets and longline gear used to catch swordfish, sharks and tunas are the two types of fishing gear most commonly known to capture and kill leatherback sea turtles. While current regulations restrict fishing to protect these sea turtles, the Fisheries Service is currently developing proposals to expand the use of these fishing gears into areas important to the leatherback.

The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow up to nine feet long and weigh up to 2,000 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. The species dates from the time of the dinosaurs, having survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged; now their kind risks disappearing from the planet.

The leatherback sea turtles feeding off the U.S. West Coast make the longest known migration of any reptile, across the Pacific Ocean where they nest on beaches in Papua, Indonesia. They make this great migration to feed on jellyfish in the productive ocean waters of the American Pacific. They are generally found off the West Coast in the summer and fall months.

SeaTurtles.org (Turtle Island Restoration Network) is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 35,000 members and supporters 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 protecting endangered species and wild places. For more information, please visit www.biologicaldiversity.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.

Photos and video available on request or here and via YouTube or Dropbox links below.
Video
Leatherback Watch Video with leatherback swimming in Monterey
Pacific leatherback PSA
Leatherback capture on longline Broll
Leatherback swimming Broll (with logos)
Leatherback swimming Broll 2
Leatherback swimming Broll3