Three environmental groups today announced a lawsuit settlement that will require the U.S. government to respond within several months to petitions seeking greater protections for two imperiled species of sea turtles.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco in May in which the groups charged two agencies with violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act by failing to meet a 12-month deadline for responding to the petitions.

The two types of turtles are the leatherback, listed as an endangered species, and the loggerhead, listed as a threatened species.

Teri Shore, program director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said, “We must hold the line on the capture of sea turtles by fishing fleets until stronger protections are considered and put into place.”

Shore said, “Fisheries are a primary reason for the sea turtle’s decline and the situation is too dire to delay action any longer.”

The network, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana want to have Pacific Ocean waters off the California and Oregon coasts declared critical habitat for the leatherback turtle.

Shore said leatherbacks migrate more than 6,000 miles from nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on jellyfish off the West Coast.

Under the settlement, the National Marine Fisheries Service will act on the critical habitat petition by Dec. 4.

In two other petitions, the groups want to have the status of North Pacific and Western North Atlantic populations of loggerhead turtles strengthened from threatened to endangered species.

The fisheries service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will respond to those petitions by Feb. 19, under the settlement.

Shore said loggerhead sea turtles have declined by at least 80 percent in the North Pacific and could become functionally extinct by the mid-21st century if additional protections are not put into place.

The groups’ petitions were filed at various times in 2007 and the agencies made preliminary findings that action may be warranted, but missed a 12-month deadline for deciding whether action is warranted.

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