SANTA CRUZ - New rules proposed to protect endangered leatherback turtles off the West Coast could have far-reaching effects on Monterey Bay clean energy, desalination and other projects as federal officials seek a balance between increased human demands on the sea and resources that the rare creatures need to survive.
The proposed rules released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration set aside 70,000 watery acres as critical habitat for leatherback sea turtles. The boundary in California stretches from Mendocino County's Point Arena to Point Vicente in Los Angeles County. Farther north, the boundary reaches from Cape Flattery in Washington to the Umpqua River in Oregon.
The new rules do not govern fishermen, who already must follow regulations issued by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to make sure turtles are not accidentally caught in gill nets and through other fishing techniques.
Specific details governing various projects were not included in Tuesday's proposed rules. Instead, by designating the areas as critical habitat, those wanting to drill for oil or natural gas, build desalination plants, harvest wave energy, build windmills or operate fish farms within must first consider how those projects might harm sea turtles and find ways to offset them, according to the proposal.
Scott Benson, NOAA research fishery biologist in Moss Landing who helped draft the new rules, compared them to city zoning regulations
"You can't put a factory anywhere, you have to put it in a particular place that's zoned for a factory," Benson said. Likewise, future windmills and other projects should not be built near turtle foraging grounds, he said.
Leatherback sea turtles travel to Monterey Bay and the U.S. West Coast each year from their nesting beaches in the South Pacific. The turtles arrive in late summer and early fall to feast on an abundance of jellyfish, their favorite food. They can grow up to nine feet long with a front-flipper-span of eight feet across. They have been listed as endangered since 1970.
Benson predicted more, similar rules from NOAA in the near future to protect other endangered species as wind farms, desalination plants and other ocean projects become more popular.
Sea turtle researcher Wallace J. Nichols of Davenport, who works with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, said the additional rules are necessary as humans increasingly turn to the sea to meet their water and power needs.
"New industries emerging as a result of the growing scarcity of water and oil will bring new kinds of impacts," Nichols said. "Designating these waters as critical habitat is a necessary step to stem sea turtle declines and begin their recovery."
Santa Cruz Water Department Director Bill Kocher said his department already is considering a myriad of regulations as the city moves forward with its long-planned desalination plant. He doesn't expect new turtle protections - whose effects on the proposed plant have not been worked out - to derail the project.
"We haven't spent a lot of time looking at leatherbacks, but I don't have the sense that it's going to add a particular level of complexity," said Kocher. While he plans to read and comment on the new rules, "we don't make it our point to take opposition to things that protect threatened and endangered species," Kocher said.
The proposed protections follow a lawsuit filed by environmental groups Oceana, Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network last year accusing the government agency of taking too long to finish them. They originally were due in 2008. Public comment will be taken through March 8, after which NOAA officials have a year to prepare their final report.
Andrea Treece, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, said her group welcomes the proposed regulations but would like to see NOAA further include more ocean acreage and address the effects of commercial fishing gear, which Tuesday's rules did not do.
"I think there's a good amount of support for this," Treece said, "protecting this habitat and protecting this species."