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Leatherback sea turtles granted massive protected area along U.S. west coast

Leatherback sea turtle camouflaging nest in Suriname. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Leatherback sea turtle camouflaging nest in Suriname. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

The U.S. federal government has designated 108,556 square kilometers (41,914 square miles) as critical habitat for the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest of the world’s marine turtles and one of the most endangered. The protected area, around the size of Guatemala, spans coastal sea waters from California to Washington state, but does not protect the migration routes environmentalists hoped for.

“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 (CBD) in a press release. The CBD along with Turtle Island Restoration Network and Oceana filed a lawsuit in 2009 to push the government to designate critical habitat for the leatherback sea turtle.

The new habitat means the government will consider possible regulations on any activities that could harm leatherbacks or their prey, jellyfish. Such regulations could target agricultural waste, pollution, nuclear power or tidal wave plants, offshore drilling, and aquaculture. Any new regulations would likely benefit more marine species beyond leatherbacks and jellyfish as well.

“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 project manager for the Pacific Ocean.

Leatherbacks travel around 9,654 kilometers (6,000 miles) from nesting sites in Indonesia to feeding ground off the U.S. West Coast. Conservationists had hoped the U.S. government would designate their migration route as critical habitat as well, safeguarding an extra 74,296 square kilometers (28,686 square miles).

Listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, leatherbacks have declined 80 percent since 1980 when there was an estimated global population of 115,000 breeding females. In the Pacific the drop has been even more catastrophic: 95 percent over the same time period.

The great turtles, weighing up to 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds), are imperiled by egg collection for human consumption, plastic pollution that can lead to starvation, ship strikes, and, first and foremost, entanglement in commercial fishing gear such as drift gillnets and longlines. Given that the migration route is not under protection, fisheries will not require additional regulations.

Leatherback sea turtle nest. Egg poaching is a considerable problem in many parts of the world. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Leatherback sea turtle nest. Egg poaching is a considerable problem in many parts of the world. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

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