NewsletterStanding Watch

Will California declare the Pacific leatherback sea turtle as endangered?

The Fish and Game Commission is considering a petition to have the turtle species protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act. Commissioners are expected to vote on the petition in August.

STATEWIDE—No one is marching through the streets of Sacramento, demanding legal protections for the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Media coverage of a petition to declare this species of turtle as endangered probably won’t receive a whole lot of media coverage, especially with headlines surrounding Covid-19, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks dominating this month’s news cycle.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, however, formally filed a petition with the state’s Fish and Game Commission, calling for the Pacific leatherback sea turtle to be declared as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

A report issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to the Fish and Game Commission stated the Pacific leatherback sea turtle is “the largest turtle species in the world and fourth largest living marine reptile.”

“Pacific leatherback sea turtles are facing extinction due to incidental bycatch in commercial and artisanal fisheries, overharvest of eggs, and killing of adults at nesting beaches, as well as commercial and residential development on nesting beaches,” the petition stated. “The Petition states that this has resulted in a decline of more than 95 percent in leatherbacks from the eastern and western populations combined over the last 30 years.”

CDFW staff added the western Pacific leatherback sea turtles “have declined by more than 80 percent since the 1980s.” The CDFW report continued: the western Pacific leatherback sea turtles would have declined by 96 percent by 2040. All data and projections were compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS.

“The petition contains sufficient information on population trends of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle to suggest a declining population trend,” the CDFW report stated.

There are a few threats to the species, such as foreign fishing gear near nesting habitats, the California drift gillnet fishery, highly migratory longline fisheries, entanglement in fishing gear, beach erosion, coastal development, aquaculture, and oil and gas activities.

Whether the Pacific Leatherback sea turtle should be classified as threatened or endangered was on the agenda of the latest Fish and Game Commission. Commissioners received the DFW presentation on June 24. A determination of whether the turtle species should be protected under the CESA would be made at the Fish and Game Commission’s August meetings (Aug. 19-20) in Fortuna.

Several factors go into determining whether a species would be entitled to CESA protections. Those factors include population trend, abundance, life history, degree and immediacy of threat, life history, and distribution.

The Pacific leatherback sea turtle, according to CDFW’s report, has “the largest geographic range of any living marine reptile, spanning the temperate and tropic waters through the Pacific Ocean.”

Adult-sized Pacific leatherback sea turtles have been found as far north as the Bering Sea (Alaska) and as far south as Chile and New Zealand. The species also frequents the California coast. They can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds and, according to NOAA Fisheries, swim more than 10,000 miles per year between foraging and nesting grounds.

“All leatherback turtle populations are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They face threats on both nesting beaches and in the marine environment. The greatest of these threats worldwide are incidental capture in fishing gear and harvest of leatherback eggs and adults,” a NOAA Fisheries one-pager about the leatherback sea turtle stated. “The Pacific leatherback populations are most at-risk for extinction.”


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The DFW report was on the Fish and Game Commission’s consent calendar for June 24, meaning commissioners did not make any substantive decisions on the endangered status of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Commissioners, however, will be reviewing the report between now and Aug. 19, when they meet in Fortuna. Should the commissioners grant the Pacific leatherback sea turtle endangered status under the CESA? Reach out to the commissioners and commission staff and let them know your position.

Fish and Game Commission

Eric Sklar, President


Samantha Murray, Vice President


Commission Office



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