Wednesday, February 22, 2012

NOAA Designates Critical Leatherback Turtle Habitat Off West Coast

By Terry Dillman

Commercial and recreational fishing interests are looking askance at the recent designation of 41,914 square miles of “critical habitat” off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, despite assurances from NOAA officials that it won’t further impede fishing activities.

The two separate areas collectively comprise the largest ever set aside in the nation’s waters to protect sea turtle habitat.

One area encompasses 25,004 square miles east of the 2,000-meter depth contour extending from Cape Flattery, Wash. to Cape Blanco, Ore. The other is 16,910 square miles east of the 3,000-meter contour stretching from Point Arena to Point Arguello, Calif. The designation covers waters from the surface to a maximum depth of 262 feet.

NOAA’s action stems from a court settlement after Oceana, the Center for Biological diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network sued to get action on a petition they filed in 2007. Their initial proposal covered 70,600 square miles, extending along the entire Washington coast, as far south as Winchester Bay on the Oregon Coast, and from Point Arena north of San Francisco to Point Vicente south of Los Angeles along the California coast. While the environmental groups didn’t get everything they wanted (the designated areas don’t protect the turtles’ migration pathways), Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific project manager, said the critical habitat designation is a major step forward, being the first to ever focus on leatherback foraging grounds.

Still, turtle advocates said it doesn’t go far enough, especially in dealing with detrimental impacts from drift net, longline and gillnet fishing for tuna, swordfish and shark.

Fishing advocates noted that such fishing is already restricted in Oregon and California waters during summer and autumn, when leatherbacks forage there, to cut down on bycatch.

Leatherbacks – the largest of the marine turtles, with some reaching lengths of up to nine feet and weighing 2,000 pounds – have the largest range of any living reptile and are found in all oceans. They feed primarily on jellyfish and lay their eggs on tropical and subtropical beaches. While leatherbacks are primarily open ocean creatures, they forage for jellyfish in coastal waters, traversing the 3,700 miles between breeding and feeding grounds. Although very little is known about their lifespan, biologists estimate leatherbacks can live for 45 years or longer. They were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1970. Environmentalists say the Western Pacific population has declined by more than 95 percent since the 1980s, and as few as 2,300 adult females remain. Federal biologists estimate about 4,000 adult females are left.

In the Jan. 20 announcement about the effort to provide added protection for endangered leatherback sea turtles along the West Coast, NOAA officials said the designation “will not directly affect recreational fishing, boating and other private activities,” but would boost scrutiny of federally permitted projects – such as tidal and wave energy projects and offshore drilling - that could adversely modify or destroy such protected areas.

Already reeling under the weight of regulations from all angles, fishermen are naturally skeptical.

Since the early 1990s, NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources has enacted sea turtle conservation measures for fisheries, among them the requirements for turtle exclusion devices in trawl fisheries, large circle hooks in longline fisheries, time and area closures for gillnets, and modifications to pound net leaders. Other measures “to reduce sea turtle interactions in fisheries” emerged in regulations and permits required under the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

In 1998, NOAA and US Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for leatherbacks along Sandy Point Beach on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and adjacent Atlantic coastal waters. And in 2003, federal regulators developed the Strategy for Sea Turtle Conservation and Recovery to evaluate and respond to “domestic sea turtle bycatch comprehensively across jurisdictional (state and federal) and fishing sector (commercial and recreational) boundaries on a per-gear basis” for Pacific fishermen worry whether another such federal effort looms in the wake of this designation.

They say incidental capture in fishing gear, while a serious matter, is only one of many threats the turtles face. Pollution, poaching and accidental ingestion of plastic bags that can look like jellyfish also contribute to turtle demise.

Terry Dillman can be reached at

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