Waters outside the Golden Gate would be protected to provide a safe haven for some of the world’s heaviest reptiles under a plan that could jeopardize nascent efforts to develop ocean-based renewable energy plants.
A vast stretch of California’s coastline would be protected from pollution and other threats to leatherback turtles by November under a legal agreement between environmental groups and the federal government that was filed Tuesday.
If approved by a judge, the settlement agreement would protect 70,600 square miles of the leatherback turtle’s West Coast stomping grounds from pollution and other threats faced by the species.
The move would help protect a dwindling species that swims annually between breeding grounds in Southeast Asia and feeding grounds off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
The protections would force federal energy regulators to increase their scrutiny of the potential impacts of proposed wave- and tide-power farms on the jellyfish populations that provide food for the turtles, potentially affecting a handful of proposed alternative energy projects.
The leatherback turtle has a long list of unusual characteristics. Its shell is soft instead of hard, it migrates farther and weighs more than any other turtle and it eats between 20 and 30 percent of its bodyweight in jellyfish every day.
Population numbers have plummeted in recent decades due to hunting, fishing and other threats. The federal government lists the species as endangered.
“The leading killer of the leatherback turtle is commercial fisheries,” said Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist at the nonprofit Turtle Island Restoration Network. Leatherback turtles die after they become tangled or hooked in commercial fishing gear. The turtles and their eggs are also hunted for food and oil.
The turtles can be killed when they eat floating plastic that they mistake for jellyfish. Their habitat is jeopardized by development, pollution and climate change.
To protect the species, environmentalists sued the federal government in 2007, alleging it had failed to protect the species’s habitat under the Endangered Species Act.