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Endangered Species Lawsuit Filed to Protect Sea Turtle Swimways and Nesting Beaches
SAN FRANCISCO— Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today against federal wildlife managers for their failure to protect critical habitat areas for endangered Pacific loggerhead sea turtles that migrate through California coastal waters and for threatened Atlantic loggerheads that nest in Florida. The sea turtles face increasing threats from commercial fisheries, coastal development and climate change.
The lawsuit was filed today in federal court in San Francisco against the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for missing deadlines to protect sea turtle habitat as required by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“Loggerheads need robust protections from fisheries, oil spills and climate change to reverse their trajectory toward extinction,” said Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network in California, a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed today. “While awaiting the protections they deserve, loggerhead sea turtles continue to die, entangled in nets or hooked on longlines for swordfish and tuna.”
The requirement to designate critical habitat was triggered more than a year ago when Pacific loggerheads were reclassified from threatened to endangered and given stronger protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Critical habitat protection would help safeguard marine and terrestrial areas essential for migrating, feeding and nesting.
The designation would ensure that federally permitted activities such as wave energy and aquaculture, nuclear power or desalination plants or oil and gas drilling projects do not drive the species to the brink of extinction by destroying important feeding or nesting areas. Evidence shows that endangered or threatened species that have protected critical habitat are twice as likely to show signs of recovery as those without it.
North Pacific loggerheads, which nest in Japan and cross the Pacific to feed along the coasts of Southern California and Mexico, have declined by at least 80 percent over the past two decades. They also migrate through Hawaiian waters.
A major threat to the recovery of Pacific loggerheads from near-extinction is capture and drowning in longlines and drift gill nets operated by the U.S. and international swordfish and tuna fishing vessels.
More than 1,000 loggerheads die each year as a result of gillnet fishing in Mexico, with more than 400 washing ashore dead last summer.
While the number of loggerhead sea turtles nesting along Florida beaches has grown in recent years, these numbers have varied significantly over the past two decades, with the lowest recorded number occurring in 2007. Florida beaches host the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the United States, where increasing threats from coastal development and beach armoring can prevent successful nesting.
“The impacts of Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Debbie have made clear that healthy coastal beaches are important — both for humans and for nesting sea turtles. Critical habitat will help ensure thoughtful coastal development in the face of sea-level rise and will help leave a legacy of stable shores for future generations of people and turtles,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Scientists estimate sea levels will rise by at least three to six feet by the end of the century, with East Coast sea levels rising three to four times faster than the global average, flooding important sea turtle habitats on vulnerable Florida beaches. In addition, beach armoring and coastal development prevent natural beach migration of sea turtles to adapt to rising seas.
“The Endangered Species Act is a safety net for imperiled species like loggerhead sea turtles, but the federal government has failed in its duty to protect the areas these sea turtles call home,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “The longer the government delays in designating and protecting critical habitat, the more turtles will continue be caught in fishing nets and have their nesting beaches destroyed. Only by protecting the regions vital to their survival can these populations recover.”
On Sept. 22, 2011, loggerhead sea turtles worldwide were protected as nine separate populations under the Endangered Species Act, including endangered North Pacific loggerheads and threatened Northwest Atlantic loggerheads. This triggered a requirement to designate critical habitat areas concurrently with the listing, with a deadline the government has failed to meet; today’s lawsuit, brought by Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana targets that failure.
Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.org) is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 60,000 members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. http://www.SeaTurtles.org