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For Immediate Release, December 28, 2007

Contact: Brendan Cummings, (760) 366-2232 x 304, (951) 768-8301) (cell)

Ocean Waters off California and Oregon on Track for Protection;
Federal Fisheries Service to Study Critical Habitat
Designation for Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle

SAN FRANCISCO— Today the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of ocean species management, announced that it would examine in detail whether waters off the California and Oregon coasts should be protected as critical habitat for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, a species whose frequent and deadly encounters with longline and gillnet fishing gear meant to catch swordfish have put it on a steep slide toward extinction.

The Fisheries Service’s finding, published in the Federal Register, comes in response to a formal petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network seeking the designation as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act an area of ocean spanning from Big Sur, California to central Oregon. The proposed protected area, comprising roughly 200,000 square miles, is a food-rich upwelling region favored by many marine species, including the leatherback.

The last members of an ancient lineage that has outlived the dinosaurs, leatherbacks are ocean giants that grow to the size of a small automobile, dive more than half a mile deep, and migrate across the entire Pacific Ocean basin from their nesting grounds in New Guinea and Indonesia to feed in the rich waters off California and Oregon . Leatherbacks swim more than 6,000 miles within a single year and have the largest geographic range of any living marine reptile, as well as one of the longest known migrations for any species in the world .

Leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean have declined by more than 90 percent over the past three decades, primarily as a result of drowning in industrial longline and gillnet fisheries aiming to catch swordfish, sharks, and tunas. Marine debris and loss of nesting beaches due to global-warming-induced sea-level rise also threaten the leatherback. If current trends continue, Pacific leatherbacks are predicted to go extinct within the next few decades.

“Leatherback sea turtles survived the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but they are unlikely to survive our unsustainable appetite for swordfish,” said Brendan Cummings, staff attorney and oceans program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “If leatherbacks are to survive the coming decades, we must turn the waters off California and Oregon into a true sanctuary for these imperiled creatures. Designating critical habitat is a vital step towards that end.”

In its finding, the Fisheries Service concludes that designating critical habitat for the leatherback off California and Oregon “may be warranted” and solicits public comment on the issue. The finding initiates a detailed review by the Service that must be completed by September, 2008.

Areas designated as critical habitat must be managed for the recovery of endangered species. Congress has emphasized the importance of critical habitat, recognizing that “the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat,” and recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to have improving population trends as species without it.

The proposed critical habitat area is currently closed to drift-gillnet fishing for swordfish during a three-month period during the summer and fall when leatherbacks gather there to feed on jellyfish. But the Fisheries Service has recently proposed to re-open the area to drift-gillnet and pelagic longline fishing.

A copy of the Fisheries Service finding is available upon request.

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