Steep decline in leatherback sea turtles seen off West Coast; facing high extinction risk


CALIFORNIA (NewsNation Now) — A species of sea turtles that dates back to the dinosaurs may soon go extinct in the Pacific Ocean. Leatherback sea turtles, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, are the largest of the species on Earth.

In a few weeks, leatherbacks will return from their epic migration across the Pacific to the scenic coast of Central California. Researchers who’ve been tracking giant sea turtles are eager to see how many will return, but their hopes are not especially high.

“The population has declined 80% in 30 years,” said Scott Benson, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

For centuries, tens of thousands of the massive sea turtles would migrate in to gorge on all the jellyfish, especially near Monterey and Marin Counties. But surveys in recent years show the average number foraging off California at just 55. 

“We’re really running out of time before this population can be extirpated, said Benson, who’s also a leading researcher of Pacific leatherbacks. “Extirpation means essentially extinction in a particular spot. So this would be extinction in the Pacific Ocean.”

The pandemic has complicated the conservation.

It grounded the main research vessel at the Moss Landing Marine Lab, which is part of San Jose State University.

With a year lost, the transmitters that were placed on the leatherbacks in 2019 are no longer sending data.

Society’s voracious appetite for seafood is perhaps the biggest threat.

Every year, there are fewer leatherbacks making their epic migration of about 7,000 miles between the shores of Indonesia and the California Coast.

In South Asia, there’s been poaching and the critical loss of nesting grounds. In the open waters of the Pacific, many die getting caught in traps or commercial fishing nets.

“The impact of industrial fishing is not just leatherback sea turtles, it’s sharks and all kinds of animals. It’s not sustainable,” said Todd Steiner, ecologist and the founder of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Steiner is pushing for more protection for leatherbacks around the world, especially since it’s an animal that’s out-survived dinosaurs.

“It’s like looking back into pre-history, pre-historic times, just to see this incredibly gigantic and magnificent animal. They’re beautiful,” Steiner said.

Some helpful progress is being made off the coast of California with the curtailing of gill net fishing and a proposed bill to phase it out. Although, the American fishing industry points to foreign operations as the bigger problem.

Activists say more international cooperation around the Pacific Rim could better protect the leatherback population. More consumer awareness about sustainable seafood would also help. 

“If we don’t move at a more rapid pace, these animals will go extinct on our watch. Basically, we have about ten to twenty years left,” Steiner said.

“We don’t have a lot of time to start the recovery. We’ve got to stop the decline first. And then hopefully have a recovery,” Benson said.

Scientists have also documented declines in leatherback populations in other parts of the world, but none are as steep or dire as those in the Pacific.

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