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Lawsuit Threatened to Save Giant Turtles Off Pacific Coast

February 7, 2011

SEATTLE - A lawsuit is being threatened to force the federal government to do more to protect giant sea turtles along the Pacific coastline. Conservation groups say the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was asked in 2007 to protect about 70,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean for endangered leatherback turtles, which grow to weigh more than 1,000 pounds.

Ben Enticknap, Pacific project manager for the nonprofit environmental group Oceana, says the turtles make their journey from Indonesia only to be snagged in fishing nets near the United States - or they ingest plastic bags, thinking they are food.

"They travel across the entire Pacific to feed on jellyfish off of California, Oregon and Washington. It's one of their most productive foraging grounds. We've asked the U.S. to designate critical habitat to protect their migratory corridors and their foraging hot spots."

The fisheries agency has suggested exempting commercial fishing and shipping from the rules, he says, which the groups charge would compromise their effectiveness.

Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist with the National Wildlife Federation's Pacific Regional Center in Seattle, recently helped with a settlement on the Gulf Coast between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and groups trying to protect turtles in Florida. She says leatherbacks face many potential hazards, and one of the deadliest is trash in the sea.

"They are threatened by harmful fishing practices, marine debris (they can swallow plastic bags, thinking they're jellyfish, and that can kill them – and, as we witnessed this past summer, things like oil spills, as well."

Glick says legally defining an area as "critical habitat" does not mean all activities would be restricted there, but it ensures more scrutiny of those that do take place.

The National Wildlife Federation is not a party to the legal action but is tracking its developments. The three groups that have joined together to file the notice of intent to sue are the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network. They say the NMFS has not met a January deadline to finalize the habitat rules.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA