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SACRAMENTO, Calif. October 15, 2021 – Yesterday, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to designate the Western Pacific population of leatherback sea turtles as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Pacific leatherbacks are the most endangered sea turtle in the Pacific Ocean with their population having declined 95% over the last thirty years. Scientists estimate the population that feeds off the California coast is declining at a rate of 5.6% per year. Leatherback sea turtles were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act when it was created in 1973 and critical habitat for Pacific leatherbacks was designated off California in 2012.

The added California designation today will result in enhanced efforts by the state to study, protect, and recover these imperiled sea turtles and their habitat. State designation will also act as a backstop in the event federal protections for leatherbacks are weakened. 

In response to today’s decision, Ashley Blacow-Draeger, Pacific policy and communications manager with Oceana released the following statement:

“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. 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. We thank the California Fish and Game Commission for voting to turn the tide on the future of these ancient marine reptiles. The timing of this endangered species listing is apropos as California celebrates its official state marine reptile tomorrow for the ninth annual Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day. We urge the state to prioritize monitoring, research, and conservation efforts to recover this special population of sea turtles.”

Pacific leatherback sea turtles hatch on beaches in Papua, Indonesia. When full-grown, leatherbacks travel 6,000 miles to the California coast — one of the longest migrations of any animal — to feed on jellyfish. Along the way and after they arrive, these sea turtles face an underwater gauntlet of threats including entanglement in fishing gear. Once entangled, sea turtles can drag heavy fishing gear for months, hindering their ability to dive and feed, or the animals can become anchored to the gear causing them to drown.

The CESA listing comes on the heels of recent regulations the California Department of Fish and Wildlife put into place to reduce the risk of entanglements to Pacific leatherbacks, blue whales, and humpback whales in commercial Dungeness crab gear. The regulations require closures or reductions of the number of traps in certain Dungeness crab fishing areas when higher concentrations of whales or sea turtles are present and allow approved alternative fishing gear that lowers the risk of entanglement, such as “pop-up” gear, to be used in areas closed to conventional gear.

To learn more about Pacific leatherback sea turtles:

Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit USA.Oceana.org to learn more.