70,000 Square Miles of Habitat Proposed for Protection for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 
Contact: 

Ben Enticknap, Oceana, (503) 329-4465 or benticknap@oceana.org
Andrea Treece, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 306 or atreece@biologicaldiversity.org
Teri Shore, Turtle Island Restoration Network, (707) 583-4428 or tshore@tirn.net

70,000 Square Miles of Habitat Proposed for Protection for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

WASHINGTON - Today the National Oceanographic Atmospheric
Administration issued a proposed rule to designate more than 70,000 square
miles of critical habitat for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles in the
waters off California, Oregon,
and Washington.
If the rule is finalized, this would be the first time critical habitat is
designated for sea turtles in ocean waters off the continental United States.

The proposal is in response to a petition submitted in
September 2007 by Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle
Island Restoration Network, seeking greater protections for endangered
leatherbacks and their critical foraging grounds and migratory corridors in
U.S. Pacific waters. The proposed rule will be open for public comments until
March 8, after which the agency must issue a final ruling on critical habitat
within one year.

"We have a duty to protect Pacific leatherbacks when
they visit our shores, and today's action brings us ever closer to fulfilling
that obligation," said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana.
"Critical habitat designation provides another tool for protecting these
ancient creatures, but their survival still hinges on the U.S. fully protecting them in our
waters to set policy precedent for the world."

While today's proposal will advance protections for
leatherbacks and their critical habitat, there were some unfortunate exclusions
of important geographic areas, as well as a failure to identify protections for
leatherbacks from a primary threat, namely entanglement in commercial fishing
gear. The area proposed by the National Oceanographic Atmospheric
Administration stretches from northern Washington
to Southern California, but excludes a large expanse of foraging and migratory
areas between the Umpqua River in Central Oregon and Point Arena in Northern California. The proposed rule also excludes
consideration of fishing gear as a threat to migrating and feeding
leatherbacks, even though incidental interaction with commercial fishing gear
is a leading cause of death for this species.

"Today's proposal marks the first step in making
sure these giant turtles have a safe and productive place to feed after their
amazing swim across the entire Pacific Ocean," said Andrea Treece, an
attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the government
needs to take the next step and improve its proposal by incorporating more of
the species' key habitat areas and addressing one of the worst threats to
leatherback survival - entanglement in commercial fishing gear."  

Leatherbacks can grow up to nine feet long and weigh up to
1,200 pounds (the equivalent of three refrigerators). Every summer and fall,
Pacific leatherbacks migrate from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to the ocean waters off
the U.S. West Coast to feed on jellyfish. This 12,000-mile journey is the
farthest known migration of any living marine reptile. During that journey,
leatherbacks face 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.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

"Protecting these patches of ocean will help
leatherbacks survive," said Teri
Shore, program director
at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. "But turning a blind eye to
effects of allowing deadly fishing hooks in these critical areas is a major
oversight."

Background on the petition

The critical habitat proposal comes after a lengthy series
of efforts to protect leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast. Oceana, the Center
for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network submitted a
petition for the designation of critical habitat for Pacific leatherbacks on
September 26, 2007. The area the groups proposed for designation had already
been determined by the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration to be
a Leatherback Conservation Area, where the use of certain fishing gear was
prohibited during the foraging season. That determination itself was the result
of a lawsuit in March 2000 by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle
Island Restoration Network.

NOAA received the current critical habitat petition on
October 2, 2007, and was obligated to make a determination regarding how to
proceed in response to the petition within one year. In May 2009, after more
than a year and a half of agency delays, the groups filed a lawsuit under the
Endangered Species Act to secure a definitive timeline for findings on the
critical habitat petition. Under the terms of the settlement, the conservation
groups and NOAA eventually agreed that the agency would make its decision by
December 31, 2009. Under the Endangered Species Act, when an area is designated
as critical habitat, federal agencies must ensure they do not fund, authorize,
or carry out any actions, including activities such as energy projects and
aquaculture, which would harm that habitat.

The same settlement related to critical habitat also
addressed the agency's obligation to respond to petitions calling for
loggerhead sea turtles in the Atlantic and
Pacific to be listed as endangered instead of threatened under the Act. NOAA is
required to submit its determination about these petitions by February 19,
2010.

The
Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation
organization with more than 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to
protecting endangered species and wild places. For more information, please
visit 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 300,000 members and e-activists
in over 150 countries have already joined Oceana. For more information,
please
visit www.oceana.org.

Turtle Island
Restoration Network is an
international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 10,000 members work to protect sea
turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world.
For more information, visit www.SeaTurtles.org.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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