Saving ocean ecosystems

Pub date January 20, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionGreen City

GREEN CITY In the spring and summer months, pacific leatherback sea turtles arrive just outside the Golden Gate to feast on jellyfish. The turtles, which can weigh up to 1,200 pounds and live as long as a century, are some of the oldest reptiles in existence.

In a single year, a leatherback may swim 6,200 miles as it encircles the Pacific Ocean, migrating from nesting grounds as far away as Indonesia to feed off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The leatherback was listed as a federally endangered species in 1970, and scientists now worry that the turtles could go extinct in as little as 10 years.

The ancient reptile may be rare, but its vanishing act is becoming common for marine creatures. Jackie Dragon, a campaign organizer with Pacific Environment, told us large fish populations, including bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, marlin, and certain sharks, have declined by 90 percent since the advent of industrialized fishing in the 1950s. Meanwhile, ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels has imperiled key species, threatening to alter the food web with potentially drastic implications.

Recently, San Francisco’s ocean conservationists have displayed rare optimism, however, as historic new protections for ocean ecosystems and the leatherback seem within reach.

A coalition of local environmental organizations staged a Jan. 13 event at City Hall to rally for the creation of a new, comprehensive ocean-protection policy at the federal level. Dubbed Wear Blue for Oceans Day, the event drew a crowd of around 75 who donned blue in support of the federal policy, put forth by President Barack Obama last June.

Under the current regulatory system, there are 140 different laws relating to ocean management, and more than 20 disparate agencies, according to Dragon. “They have varying purposes and often conflicting mandates,” she explained. “Right now, it’s inconsistent with a healthy future for the ocean to have a piecemeal approach. And it’s absolutely necessary to appreciate that ecosystems in the ocean depend on a kind of management that takes into consideration the fact that these habitats … need to be looked at from a broader perspective.”

According to an interim report drafted by a 23-member task force convened by Obama to make suggestions for crafting a federal policy, the new approach would place ecosystem protection at the heart of regulatory decisions. Environmentalists hope it will improve the overall health of oceans.

The task force is scheduled to submit its final recommendations to Obama in early February, and the president is expected to announce the creation of the new policy shortly afterward. “The importance of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems cannot be overstated,” the report notes. “Simply put, we need them to survive.” Climate change and ocean acidification are named as top priorities.

A second regulatory victory seems imminent for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a San Francisco-based environmental organization that joined Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network in pressing for expanded critical habitat designation for the pacific leatherback turtles in 2007.

The groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for failing to take action for two years. Following a settlement, the agency finally submitted its proposal Jan. 5 for a new protection zone. The critical habitat area would span some 70,000 square miles of open waters along the West Coast.

Chris Pincetich, a campaign organizer with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, called the designation “a long overdue action by federal agencies.” However, the proposal doesn’t limit commercial fishing, which Pincetich notes is one of the greatest threats to the leatherbacks, because they can become ensnared in gillnets. Nor does it cover habitat areas in Southern California, where turtles have been known to migrate, Pincetich said. NMFS will accept public comments on the proposal until March 8.

Although it’s a major step forward, changes won’t be implemented until January 2011 at the earliest.

For the leatherback, with about a decade to fight for survival, time is of the essence.