WASHINGTON (CN) – To dampen the push for development on one of the most important leatherback sea turtle nesting sites in the country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may add the coast of Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor to the species’ critical habitat designation.
The agency will consider the addition during the future planned status review for the turtle.
The Sierra Club, which petitioned the agency for the change, pointed out on its Web site that despite the U.S. having invested in acquiring parts of the corridor as a nature reserve, the territory’s governor, Luis Fortuno, has removed the designation from the wild beaches, and is planning to split up the ecosystem and open it to development.
The largest of sea turtles, the leatherback can reach 8 feet in length and weigh up to 2000 pounds. It is called the leatherback because it does not have a shell. Instead, its back is covered with thick, oil-saturated connective tissue over a mosaic of small bones. The oil and large body size allow them to go to the cold open ocean to eat, where they find jelly fish suited to their sharp edged jaws.
The requested habitat designation includes nesting beaches, where decades of data have document hundreds of nests, and offshore marine habitats. It also includes near-shore coastal waters off those beaches, which provide room for turtles to mate and to access the beaches, and for hatchlings and adults to leave the beaches. In addition to development pressure, the area is vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change, according to the petition.
The USFWS states that the crash of the Pacific leatherback population, once the world’s largest population, is primarily due to exploitation by humans for the eggs and meat, and incidental take in numerous commercial fisheries of the Pacific, loss or degradation of nesting habitat from coastal development, disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, excessive nest predation by native and non-native predators, degradation of foraging habitat, marine pollution and debris, and watercraft strikes.