WASHINGTON (CN) – The waters off the coast of Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor are not critical to the survival of the leatherback sea turtle, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The decision comes after a twelve month review of a Sierra Club petition, asking the agency for the second time to revise the turtle’s critical habitat designation. The petition argued that the waterways provided a “migratory pathway” for the turtles to access known nesting sites. The petition also asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to include the beaches of the corridor in the designation.
The NMFS said that there was insufficient evidence that the waters adjacent to known nesting beaches in the corridor were critical to the survival of the species, besides being adjacent to the nesting beaches.
“Sierra Club’s argument for designation of these essential features is based largely on adult leatherback presence in those waters and general information on what the leatherbacks may be doing in those areas, rather than on any specific qualities of the physical and biological features of the habitat,” the NMFS said.
Although it rejected the petitioned revisions, the NMFS said that if the listing status of the leatherbacks changed to identify distinct population segments it would be required to designate critical habitat for those segments “to the maximum extent prudent and determinable.”
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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in August that it would consider including the beaches of the Ecological Corridor in its next planned 5 year status review of the leatherback. Although such reviews are supposed to occur every 5 years after a species is desingated as endangerd under the Endangered Species Act, higher priority listing actions push back the review schedule.
The leatherback was listed as endangered throughout its range in 1970. The USFWS says that the greatest threats faced by the Atlantic population of the species are loss or degradation of nesting and foraging habitat from coastal development, disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, nest predation by native and non-native predators, marine pollution, and watercraft strikes.