Uncharted Waters: Open Ocean Critical Habitat Designation for Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) under the Endangered Species Act
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On January 5th, 2010 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued proposed rules to designate additional critical habitat for leatherback sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This marked the first time that critical habitat has been attempted for endangered leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in U.S. continental waters generating excitement and debate amongst sea turtle conservationists, fishermen, and government agency representatives about how to effectively allocate this space to balance multiple objectives. NMFS’ ruling was in response to a petition by several conservation groups seeking to revise the designation to include an area in the Pacific Ocean off of California to reduce leatherback interactions with California and Oregon’s drift gillnet fishery. Given that Pacific leatherback sea turtles confront numerous threats to recovery and critical habitat protections only apply to federal agency actions and not private citizens, is critical habitat designation an adequate policy tool to address sea turtle declines? I investigate this question by analyzing the existing regulatory structure for leatherback conservation and by examining the reasoning behind critical habitat designation under the ESA in the context of sea turtle recovery threats. The scope of critical habitat designation is narrow and achieving conservation aims is further complicated by the migratory nature of sea turtles. I argue that the legal protections offered by critical habitat areas are an important step towards increased recovery efforts for leatherback turtles but they should be recognized as limited to addressing threats that are not outweighed by economic costs of designation.
DepartmentNicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
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