OAKLAND,Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed a petition today to protect leatherback sea turtles under the California Endangered Species Act.
The Pacific leatherback population has declined by 90 percent over the past 40 years, mostly because longline and gillnet fishing for tuna and swordfish entangles and drowns these large, ancient, soft-shelled turtles.
Today’s petition to the California Fish and Game Commission follows the groups’ legal victory last month, when a federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s move to revive longline fishing off California’s coast. The federal government had banned the practice in 2004.
“We’re on the verge of losing leatherback sea turtles forever,” said Catherine Kilduff, a Center attorney. “Like so many species caught up in the global extinction crisis, we can’t just continue to push them to the brink and hope they survive. The state can play an important role in ensuring future generations of Californians still have leatherback turtles swimming off our coasts.”
Listing leatherbacks under the state’s Endangered Species Act would make them a state conservation priority. The state law would also provide a backstop to potentially weakened protections for leatherbacks under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The Pacific leatherback turtle, reaching nine feet in length and weighing in at over 2,000 pounds, is one of the world's most fascinating ocean species. Leatherbacks dive as deep as giant whales and migrate across entire ocean basins,” said Todd Steiner, ecologist and executive director at TIRN. “These magnificent animals have survived for millions of years, but are now on the brink of extinction due to industrial fishing, especially from deadly driftnet and longline fishing. In order to give this species a fighting chance at survival, they need greater protections, which California’s Endangered Species Act can provide.”
The Center and TIRN sued the Trump administration after a fishing permit issued last April exempted vessels from the federal ban on longline gear off California. Longlines stretch up to 60 miles, with thousands of baited hooks. A federal judge in Oakland ruled Dec. 20 that the federal government had failed to adequately consider impacts to leatherbacks when it revived longline fishing, blocking the permit.
Pacific leatherback sea turtles are highly endangered and listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, with scientists predicting their extinction in 20 years. In 2016 the National Marine Fisheries Service identified leatherback sea turtles as one of eight species most at risk of extinction.
Trump administration rollbacks of the Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental laws have highlighted the need for protections for the leatherback under the California Endangered Species Act.