The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it is considering removing the Northwest Atlantic Ocean population of the world's largest turtle — the leatherback — from the United States' list of endangered animals.
In September, NOAA received a petition from New Jersey-based Blue Water Fishermen's Association asking that the Northwest Atlantic Ocean's leatherback sea turtles be listed as "threatened," but not endangered, under the Endangered Species Act. The group is arguing that this population is as a distinct population segment (DPS). The Blue Water Fishermen's Association argues that the turtles would remain protected under federal law, but their status would be moved down a notch. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists leatherbacks as Critically Endangered.
NOAA officials have said they've found "substantial scientific and commercial information" that the move might be warranted. The agency now has about eight months to make a decision about the status of the turtles.
"We have initiated a status review of the leatherback sea turtle to determine whether the petitioned action is warranted and to examine the species globally with regard to application of the DPS policy in light of significant new information since the original listing," NOAA states on its website. "To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information pertaining to the leatherback sea turtle from any interested party."
A 60-day public comment period on the 90-day finding to identify the Northwest Atlantic leatherback sea turtle as a DPS and list it as threatened under the ESA is open until February 5, 2018. Comments and information can be submitted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal.
The leatherback is the largest turtle in the world. They are the only species of sea turtle that lack scales and a hard shell and are named for their tough rubbery skin. Leatherbacks belong to a different taxonomic family than the six other sea turtle species found in the world, and date back to the age of the dinosaurs. Leatherbacks are highly migratory, some swimming over 10,000 miles a year between nesting and foraging grounds.
Larry McKenna of Save Our Leatherbacks was honored as a 2011 Sea Hero by Scuba Diving magazine.