Federal biologists on Tuesday proposed the first open ocean habitat protections for the endangered leatherback sea turtle along the West Coast, an action that could affect future development of offshore renewable energy, aquaculture and desalination plants.
GRANTS PASS — Federal biologists on Tuesday proposed the first open ocean habitat protections for the endangered leatherback sea turtle along the West Coast, an action that could affect future development of offshore renewable energy, aquaculture and desalination plants.
The areas were chosen to cover the best feeding areas and migration routes used by leatherbacks within the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, while taking into account potential economic impacts, said NOAA Fisheries Service sea turtle ecologist Sara McNulty.
The three areas described in the Federal Register extend about 125 miles off the entire coast of Washington, the northern two-thirds of Oregon between the Columbia River to the Umpqua River, and the Central Coast of California between Point Arena and Point Vincente. They cover a total of 70,600 square miles.
If approved later this year, the areas would be the first critical habitat for leatherbacks in the open ocean, McNulty said. Only nesting beaches on the U.S. Virgin Islands and nearby waters are currently protected.
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest reptile in the world, growing to more than 6 feet long and nearly 2,000 pounds, according to the service's Web site. The Pacific population nests on beaches in Indonesia and swims across the Pacific to feed on jellyfish off the West Coast in late summer and fall.
The proposal by the service was prompted by the settlement of a lawsuit brought by conservation groups to speed up consideration of their 2007 petition to protect critical habitat for the turtles, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act.
The groups expressed frustration that the proposal did not cover a larger area or address threats from commercial fishing, particularly drift gillnet fishing for thresher shark and swordfish off Southern California. Turtles can get tangled in the nets and die.
"Their survival still hinges on the U.S. fully protecting them in our waters to set policy precedent for the world," said Ben Enticknap of Oceana.
Creation of a West Coast sea turtle conservation area in 2001 that bans gillnet fishing when sea turtles are feeding has been successful in protecting leatherbacks, but more is needed, said Enticknap.
The proposed critical habitat rule's failure to address commercial fishing could leave open the door to future West Coast longline fishing, now a threat to turtles when they swim past Hawaii, said Teri Shore of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
Harm to critical habitat must be considered when federal agencies authorize or fund such things as stormwater runoff contaminated by industrial and agricultural pollution, oil spills, power plants, aquaculture facilities, desalination plants, wind and wave energy projects, and liquefied natural gas ports, McNulty said.
NOAA Fisheries feels any threats from commercial fishing would be taken up in consultations over the potential to kill individual turtles, rather than in protection of the habitat, she said.
A final decision will be made sometime after March 8, the deadline for public comments.