In a settlement agreement (pdf) filed in federal court on July 5, 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to issue a final rule by November 15, 2011, likely revising the critical habitat for the endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) to include waters off the U.S. West coast.
NMFS initially designated critical habitat for the leatherback in 1979, issuing a final rule (pdf) designating critical habitat only in waters adjacent to Sandy Point Beach, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed a petition (pdf) requesting that NMFS revise the critical habitat designation to include areas off the California and Oregon coasts. While NMFS determined (pdf) in 2007 that the petition presented substantial scientific information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted, it did not issue a proposed rule (pdf) to revise the critical habitat designation until January 5, 2010. Under the proposed rule, NMFS would revise the leatherback’s designated critical habitat to include approximately 70,600 square miles of ocean waters.
On April 19, 2011, because NMFS had not issued a final rule revising the leatherback’s designated critical habitat, the environmental organizations filed a lawsuit alleging that the failure to issue a final rule was in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. On July 5, 2011, the parties filed a settlement agreement obligating NMFS to issue a final rule by November 15, 2011. While NMFS is not obligated under the settlement agreement to adopt the proposed rule, or any other specific substantive outcome, it is anticipated that the final rule will designate critical habitat off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.