California Grants Endangered Species Protections for World’s Largest Turtle Species

A leatherback sea turtle, the worlds largest turtle.

California is taking extra steps to protect its official state reptile.

The state’s Fish and Game Commission voted Thursday to list the Pacific leatherback turtle as endangered under California’s own Endangered Species Act, as the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) announced in a press release. The action comes as the population of these turtles off the California coast has declined by 5.6 percent per year in the last almost 30 years.

“California’s action will make an outsized difference for leatherback sea turtles, even in the face of global threats like the loss of nesting beaches,” CBD attorney Catherine Kilduff said in the release. “Protecting the state’s ocean to save leatherbacks benefits not only sea turtles, but whales and people too. The California Endangered Species Act will ensure that leatherbacks’ decline gets the attention it deserves during this global biodiversity crisis.”

Pacific leatherback turtles are the largest turtle species on the planet, according to The AP. They have been protected by the federal Endangered Species Act since 1973. However, new science has revealed the importance of California waters for their lifecycle.

A subpopulation of the marine reptile hatches on beaches in Indonesia, then swims almost 6,000 miles to eat jellyfish off the California coast. From 1990 to 2003, around 178 turtles came to California’s coast to eat, CBD said. Now, that number is down to 50. Globally, their population is also in decline, and they are considered “Vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List.

One major threat to the turtles is entanglement in fishing gear. This gear can either slow the turtles down, forcing them to drag it for months, or it can cause them to drown, conservation group Oceana explained in an email to EcoWatch. While California does not officially monitor turtle entanglements, leatherbacks in the state were found tangled in rock crab gear in 2019 and Dungeness crab gear in 2016 and 2015, according to CBD.

CBD and the Turtle Island Restoration Network petitioned the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to consider greater protections. Now that they have been granted, the turtles will become a state conservation priority.

“Leatherbacks that forage for jellyfish off the California coast will now receive greater protection in our state from entanglement in fishing gear, giving them a better chance at survival,” Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, said in the CBD release. “We are hopeful this action will put these ancient, gentle giants on a path to recovery.”

Oceana also applauded the new protections.

“Pacific leatherback sea turtles survived 100 million years virtually unchanged but may disappear from the oceans in the next 30 years unless more is done to protect them,” Oceana Pacific policy and communications manager Ashley Blacow-Draeger said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “California has the responsibility to ensure these sea turtles can safely swim and feed off our coast for many more years to come. As one of the most imperiled ocean species, every turtle matters.”

A leatherback sea turtle in Monterey Bay, California.

A leatherback sea turtle in Monterey Bay, California. John / Flickr

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