Victory! Pacific Leatherbacks Gain Protected Habitat - Oceana USA
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January 20, 2012

Victory! Pacific Leatherbacks Gain Protected Habitat

As of today, the ocean’s largest sea turtle now has 41,914 square miles of Pacific Ocean it can call its own.

Oceana has been working for five years to protect habitat critical to the survival and recovery of the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, and it paid off. Thanks to a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, these magnificent reptiles will now be safeguarded off the U.S. West Coast.

Leatherback sea turtles migrate from Papua, Indonesia to the U.S. West Coast every summer and fall to feed on jellyfish — a 12,000-mile round-trip journey that is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile.

Sadly, these navigators encounter a gauntlet of threats as they make their journey across the Pacific such as poaching; ingestion of plastic bags which they mistake for their favorite food, jellyfish; and entanglement and drowning in longline and gillnet fishing gear.

Due to these threats Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s and as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. There have already been localized extinctions of leatherback sea turtles in India and the Sri Lanka and Malaysian populations have nearly disappeared. 

Leatherbacks from Papua, Indonesia and those that feed off the U.S. West Coast, are one of the turtle’s last strongholds in the Pacific Ocean. It is heartbreaking to think that a species that has been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 100 million years could indeed be wiped out by human actions.

To prevent this from happening, Oceana has been working to provide leatherbacks with safe passage during their migration and to protect important feeding areas that are crucial to the species’ conservation and recovery.

In 2007, hearing news that new feeding grounds for leatherbacks were discovered, Oceana filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to get these areas protected as “critical habitat”. In response to our petition, NMFS proposed areas for protection in January of 2010, but continually missed legal deadlines to get these areas officially designated. Only after continued litigation have they finally enacted these protections.

The critical habitat designation means that any federally permitted activity will undergo increased scrutiny by the government, and the public, to make sure activities don’t impact the leatherback and their habitat.

Thank you to all of you who have followed and supported this work over the last five years to make this critical habitat a reality. While there is more work to be done to protect these turtles as they cross the Pacific, today’s action is a major step forward and a novel approach for sea turtle conservation!