01/25/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

A Safe Haven for Leatherbacks

Leatherback sea turtles migrate an astonishing 6,000 miles across the Pacific to feed on jellyfish in the waters off the U.S. West Coast.

Along the way these gentle giants face a gauntlet of threats, including fishing gear, pollution and plastic bags that look like food. Scientists have reported that on average, 1,500 mature females were accidentally caught each year in the 1990s.

After such a long journey, wouldn't you want somewhere safe to rest?

Now, thanks to a new rule, leatherbacks have a safe place to call their own. The National Marine Fisheries Service has decided to protect nearly 42,000 square miles off Washington, Oregon and California for leatherback sea turtles. This "critical habitat" designation is the first permanent safe haven for leatherbacks in continental U.S. waters and is the largest area set aside to protect sea turtle habitat in the United States or its territories.

The designation is in response to a petition filed by Oceana, Turtle Island Restoration Network, and Center for Biological Diversity, and it's a huge win for sea turtles. Oceana has been campaigning for increased protections for Pacific leatherbacks since 2007.

Leatherback sea turtles have been on Earth for more than 100 million years, but now they are critically endangered, and could go extinct in our lifetime if we don't act to protect and recover their imperiled populations.

If you watch leatherback hatchlings begin their journey to the sea (as actress Kate Walsh did in the Virgin Islands a few years ago for Oceana), you can see that leatherbacks already face very long odds to reach adulthood, even without additional threats from humans.

"Establishing the first permanent safe haven for leatherback sea turtles is a huge victory. Every step counts, and hopefully this will inspire more people to join the cause," Walsh said.

While the Obama administration has now designated critical habitat for the leatherback's foraging areas -- a huge victory -- actions are still needed to protect these ancient animals from their nesting beaches and across their migratory pathways.

But with these new critical habitat protections, Pacific leatherbacks have a far better chance of coming back from the brink of extinction, and that's wonderful news.