SAVING THE LEATHERBACK SEA TURTLE

As ancient as the dinosaurs, the leatherback sea turtle is something of a dinosaur itself — and the heaviest reptile on the planet. This champion swimmer, whose diving capabilities are unmatched by other turtles, has confounded scientists with its mammal-like ability to regulate its own body temperature. Tolerant even of the extreme temperatures of the Arctic Circle, leatherbacks cannot endure humanity’s assault on the world’s oceans much longer.

Ocean-borne longline fishing vessels targeting swordfish and tuna deploy thousands of baited hooks on lines that can extend for more than 60 miles. These hooks catch and kill not just swordfish and tuna but thousands of sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals and sharks. Gillnet fisheries likewise entangle and drown many of these species, including the leatherback sea turtle. The Center has repeatedly initiated litigation to curtail commercial fishing practices off the West and East coasts of the United States, as well as off Hawaii.

Following one successful lawsuit, longline fishing for swordfish was prohibited along the West Coast. And following another, leatherbacks earned a proposal for the first-ever designation of sea turtle critical habitat off the continental shelf. It has been a shell game, but the Center will persist until turtles have sufficient protected habitat and are no longer drowning in commercial fishing gear.

While leatherbacks are threatened throughout their range, they’re particularly imperiled in the Pacific Ocean. In 2007 we filed a petition to obtain critical habitat designation for leatherbacks in their foraging grounds off the northwest coast. After we twice sued to compel a response from the National Marine Fisheries Service, in January 2012 the agency granted the turtle 40,000 square miles of critical habitat off California, Oregon and Washington — the first critical habitat for leatherbacks designated in continental U.S. waters and the largest area set aside to protect sea turtle habitat in the United States or its territories.