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.
In Sonoma County, the most tangible impact would be to wave machines that are being proposed along the coast by the Sonoma County Water Agency, which is seeking to develop electricity for its operations without generating greenhouse gases.
The agency wants to put two wave machines off Fort Ross and a third off Sea Ranch.
If the machines were seen as interfering with the sea turtles, or the jellyfish they feed on, it could trigger mitigations or potentially stop a project.
But Cordel Stillman, capital project manager for the Water Agency, said the new regulations "probably wouldn't affect us a whole lot." He said the wave generation projects already are subject to extensive federal environment review.
The projects are still years from being developed and face numerous hurdles, from financing, to meeting other marine life protection rules.
"I probably have 20 challenges and this would make 21," Stillman said.
"If the environmental regulations preclude it, we won't push to slam through a project that's not in the interest of the environment," he said.