New protections sought for giant turtles

  • FILE - This Aug. 3, 2004 file handout photo from the Project for the Conservation of Marine Turtles (PRETOMA), shows a Leatherback turtle preparing to nest and lay her eggs in Playa Caletas on Costa Rica's northern Pacific coast. Federal biologists have proposed the first open ocean habitat protections for the endangered leatherback sea turtle along the West Coast, an action that could affect future development of offshore renewable energy, aquaculture and desalination plants. (AP Photo/PRETOMA, File)

Endangered Pacific leatherback turtles would get increased protections under proposed federal regulations designating much of the California, Oregon and Washington coasts "critical habitat" for the species.

The designation for 70,600 square miles of ocean, including from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Point Vicente, near Los Angeles, is intended to help the dwindling, migrating sea turtles.

The proposed regulations, extending 125 miles out to sea, encompass the entire coast of Washington and northern two-thirds of Oregon as well.

It potentially affects the development of coastal desalination plants, liquid natural gas facilities and about a dozen ocean wave energy generation projects, including several proposed off the Sonoma Coast.

But it does not impact fishermen, who already face federal restrictions during leatherback migration and feeding.

"It will provide permanent year-round protection for sea turtles from certain activities listed, like proposed new wave energy, LNG plants and offshore oil rigs. Those things would trigger review for protection of the turtles," said Teri Shore, program director for Turtle Island Restoration Network, located in west Marin.

Her group was one of several environmental organizations that sued to protect critical habitat for the sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act.

The new critical habit designation is being proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to settle the lawsuit.

The tortoises, which can be more than 6 feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, migrate 6,000 miles across the Pacific from their nesting grounds in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and tend to show up mid-August to mid-November. Their numbers have declined dramatically with current estimates of 100 to 300 animals off the coast from San Mateo to Sonoma counties, Shore said.

Environmentalists were disappointed the designation did not include more of the West Coast and did not focus on turtles accidentally caught by fishermen using drift nets or long lines to catch swordfish, thresher, tuna and shark.

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