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Saving the Pacific’s leatherback turtles

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The leatherback turtle -- at 1,200 pounds, the world’s heaviest reptile -- is in such severe decline that it could become extinct in the Pacific Ocean within a few decades, according to Oceana, an environmental group seeking emergency protections for it and the other five species of sea turtle.

Of particular concern is the plight of the leatherback, which grows to a length of 5 feet and migrates about 6,000 miles each year from nesting beaches in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands to the coastal waters of California and Oregon to feed on jellyfish.

‘We are pushing Congress to enact comprehensive sea turtle legislation as soon as possible,’ said Elizabeth Griffin, Oceana’s marine wildlife scientist and fisheries campaign manager. ‘One big problem is residential and commercial development of its nesting beaches. Another is that leatherbacks are getting caught in commercial fishing gear: nets, hooks and fishing line.’

Oceana and other groups have already petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate certain stretches of ocean from Pt. Conception, Calif., north to Lincoln City, Ore., as critical migratory and foraging habitat for leatherbacks.

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No one knows exactly how many leatherbacks dwell off the coasts of California and Oregon, but biologists estimate the number ranges from about 150 to 380.

A month ago, however, the groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue over violations of the federal Endangered Species Act because the service failed to meet the legal 12-month deadline for responding to the petition.

‘We’re trying to decide how to proceed,’ Griffin said.

In the meantime, here are some ways that summer beach goers can help sea turtles, which have been swimming in the world’s oceans for 110 million years.

-- Recycle: Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for food.

-- Pick up trash: Sea turtles can become entangled in debris and drown, or swallow it, fatally blocking their digestive systems.

-- Keep vehicles off beaches: Sea turtle nests are often hidden in the sand and easily crushed.

-- Louis Sahagun

-- Photo: A leatherback turtle.

Map: Leatherback turtle sightings off the coast of California. Credit: Ben Enticknap, Pacific project manager for Oceana


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