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California lists leatherback sea turtle as endangered; fisheries defend practices

Scott R. Benson
NOAA, Southwest Fisheries Science Center
Leatherback Sea Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea

Leatherback sea turtles are now listed under California’s Endangered Species Act after a deciding vote by the state’s Fish and Game Commission.

The Commission acted on the recommendation of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is concerned about the decline of the turtles’ population.

In a study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, leatherback sea turtle abundance on the California coast was found to be declining at about 5.6 percent annually, over the last 30 years.

“These leatherback sea turtles are gigantic. They can be nine feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail and weigh up to 2,000 pounds,” said Executive Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network Todd Steiner.

Steiner said leatherbacks are critically endangered around the world and specifically in the Pacific Ocean. He said listing them on California’s Endangered Species Act gives the turtles more protection off the coast.

“We’ll see better monitoring. We’ll see better policies to ensure that where the fisheries occur are not in the same areas and at the same times that leatherbacks are in our water,” Steiner said.

Leatherback sea turtles migrate more than 5,000 miles from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to feed on the California coast.

“They’re here right now, feeding on jellyfish. A couple were seen just this last week in Monterey Bay. So they’re feeding off the Central California coast here,” Steiner said.

Steiner said the turtles often get caught as bycatch — meaning they’re caught incidentally in things like long lines and drift nets meant to catch tuna and swordfish.

“Their numbers are decreasing greatly,” Steiner said. “The primary threat, at this point, is their interaction with fisheries.”

Mike Conroy is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association. He said he disagrees that fisheries are a primary threat to leatherback sea turtles off the California coast. But he said the state’s fisheries do have mitigation efforts in place to address bycatch.

“I mean, that does happen. But it’s not widespread,” Conroy said. “I believe that there has been only one documented interaction with a drift net fleet since 2013. That’s the one that operates off the California coast.”

In the CDFW’s status review of the leatherback sea turtle, some of the greatest threats to the species were found to be the direct harvest of eggs and turtles, predation, bycatch from fisheries, marine debris, pollution, ship strikes, coastal development and beach erosion.

Steiner said protecting leatherback sea turtles has wide reaching environmental implications.

“Protecting leatherbacks also protects whales and dolphins because those same fisheries are interacting with those species,” Steiner said.

Both Steiner and Conroy agree that sourcing seafood is important for protecting endangered species. Conroy said choosing locally-caught fish is better than sourcing from overseas, because California coastal fisheries are strictly regulated.

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