There's good news for the world's largest -- and most endangered -- sea turtle.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wants to designate 70,000 square miles off the West Coast as critical habitat for leatherback sea turtles. It's a way to give them more protection from some of the threats they face in the wild, whether from polluted runoff, oil spills or offshore development along the coast.
Your voice can help decide the issue, as NOAA is seeking public comment on the proposed designation.
Notably the plan does NOT affect commercial fishing, although fisheries management authorities recently rejected a proposal to open additional West Coast waters to longline fishing that could have threatened leatherbacks.
Monterey Bay would be at the heart of one of the two critical habitat areas, which covers much of the California coast. The second area proposed for designation covers about half the Oregon coast and stretches north to the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
It's high time for action. Leatherback ancestors predate the dinosaurs. Their modern cousins are the largest of the planet's sea turtles, and undertake long annual migrations -- from nesting beaches in Indonesia, to West Coast waters where they feast on sea nettle jellies.
Sadly, their numbers have collapsed just in the last three decades, falling by 95 percent to the point where they now face biological extinction unless we step in with more protection. Protecting the waters where they swim and feed is part of the solution. The other critical step is safeguarding their nesting beaches.
Our colleagues at the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) project have been documenting their migrations. There's also a well-publicized Great Turtle Race each year that draws attention to their 6,000-plus-mile migrations. (Stephen Colbert even participated in one of the races and had a leatherback named after him!)
Leatherbacks aren't out of danger -- not by a long shot. But NOAA's announcement is a great way to start the new year.
Photos courtesy NOAA and TOPP