(Reuters) - Three environmental groups sued the U.S. government on Tuesday for what they said was Washington's failure to take urgent steps to ensure the survival of endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
"Loggerhead sea turtles are among the most imperiled of sea turtle species and have experienced alarming declines in recent years," said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The lawsuit said loggerheads were already being pushed to the brink of extinction and that the government had failed to comply with deadlines set under the Endangered Species Act to establish protected areas or "critical habitat" for loggerhead sea turtle populations.
The suit, brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana Inc and Turtle Island Restoration, cited the destruction or degradation of nesting and foraging habitats, pollution including oil spills, climate change and sea level rise among other threats to the long-term survival of the marine turtles.
"Loggerhead sea turtles face numerous, ongoing threats in waters off the coasts of California and Hawaii, along the continental shelf off the eastern seaboard from Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, south through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico," it said.
Government spokesmen declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The legal complaint said the "incidental capture, injury and death by commercial fishing fleets" posed another clear danger to the loggerheads.
Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in U.S. waters. The marine reptiles live mostly in the ocean and often migrate long distances, but adult females return to land to lay their eggs along beaches.
Florida beaches have the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the United States but face increasing threats from coastal development.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Northern Pacific loggerheads, have seen the most startling population decline in recent years. They nest in Japan, and cross the Pacific to feed along the coasts of Southern California and Mexico, and have declined by at least 80 percent over the past decade.
Defendants named in the lawsuit include the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The Services are depriving this critically imperiled species of significant legal protections that are important for its conservation and recovery, especially in light of the continuing negative effects of climate change and commercial fishing activities which include the use of harmful longlines, trawls and gillnets," the lawsuit said.
Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Sandra Maler