SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Thirty-four years after listing the loggerhead sea turtle as threatened, the federal government is breaking the law by refusing to establish critical habitat for the species, environmental groups claim in court.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network sued the secretaries of Commerce and Interior, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Federal Court.
"Loggerhead sea turtles are among the most imperiled of sea turtle species and have experienced alarming declines in recent years," the complaint states.
By refusing to designate habitat for the giant sea turtles, Uncle Sam violates the Endangered Species Act, which requires the defendants to identify areas of "critical habitat" for endangered and threatened species "(I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection," the groups say.
Loggerhead sea turtles commonly grow to 300 lbs., but giants as large as half a ton have been recorded.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service share jurisdiction over sea turtles. The agencies listed the loggerhead sea turtle as threatened on July 28, 1978.
When turtle populations continued to decline, the groups in 2007 petitioned the agencies to "reclassify the North Pacific Ocean loggerheads and the Western North Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles from threatened to endangered and designate critical habitat for them."
The Endangered Species Act requires the agencies to designate areas of critical habitat at the same time they list a species as endangered.
"In situations where critical habitat is 'not determinable' at the time of the listing, the services must conduct additional necessary research, and must publish a final determination of critical habitat no later than one year from the date of the 'not determinable' finding," the complaint states (citations omitted).
The defendants published notices acknowledging that the petitions "presented substantial scientific information indicating that the petitioned action[s] may be warranted," but blew off their deadline.
Failure to establish this critical habitat "significantly diminishes loggerhead sea turtles' chances for long term recovery and survival. Critical habitat is an effective and important component of the ESA, without which the loggerhead sea turtle's chance for recovery dramatically diminishes. For example, species with critical habitat are twice as likely to show signs of recovery compared to species lacking designated habitat," the complaint states.
It adds: "Loggerhead sea turtles face numerous, ongoing threats in waters off the coasts of California and Hawaii, and along the continental shelf off the Eastern Seaboard from Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, south through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. These threats include incidental capture, injury, and death by commercial fishing fleets. Additional changes in environmental conditions caused by pollution, climate change, and sea level rise further threaten the loggerhead sea turtle's survival and recovery.
"Loggerhead sea turtles also use the beaches and sand dunes for nesting from southern Virginia, along the Florida peninsula and along the Gulf Coast to Texas. Sea turtles face the loss and degradation of their nesting habitat in these areas from sea level rise, light pollution, trash, coastal development, beach armoring and renourishment, and vehicles driving on beaches."
Two populations are particularly at risk: the endangered North Pacific Ocean loggerheads and the threatened Northwest Atlantic Ocean loggerheads.
The North Pacific population "spends the majority of their lives in the ocean, migrating over 7,500 miles between nesting sites in Japan and the South China Sea, and at least two primary feeding grounds, one off the cost of Mexico and Southern California and one in the central North Pacific, North of Hawaii," according to the complaint.
The Northwest Atlantic population nests on beaches ranging from "Virginia to Texas," and migrates as far as the Mediterranean Sea after hatching. Many juvenile turtles forage off the coast of Newfoundland and Cape Cod, and many adult loggerheads live in the shallow waters off Florida Bay.
The turtles' shrinking populations are primarily threatened by fishing and destruction of their habitat.
"Fishing with longline, trawl, dredge, gillnet and other gear in the turtles' marine habitat interfere with safe passage and kill thousands of loggerheads every year. Loggerhead sea turtles' foraging habitat faces numerous, increasing threats, including seafloor destruction from fishing gear, abandoned fishing gear, marine debris, pollution, and oceanic acidification," the complaint states.
Also, "coastal development and vehicles driving on beaches interfere with adults' nesting and hatchlings' return to the ocean, with heavy vehicles often crushing nests not marked or protected."
The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network sued in 2009 when the agencies continued to blow off their legal obligations, and a federal judge ordered them to establish critical habitat for the species by March 16, 2011.
The agencies invoked a rule allowing them to extend the 1-year deadline by 6 months, and when they did list nine loggerhead populations as threatened, on Sept. 22, 2011, they claimed, "critical habitat is 'not determinable at this time, but will be proposed in a separate rulemaking."
That's insufficient, the environmentalists say. The defendants are "depriving this critically imperiled species of significant legal protections that are important for its conservation and recovery, especially in light of the continuing negative effects of climate change and commercial fishing activities."
They ask the court to compel the agencies to do their job, and establish critical habitat for loggerheads sea turtles by a date not specified in the complaint.
They are represented by Catherine W. Kilduff, with the Center for Biological Diversity.