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HomeOcean & SeaEndangered SpeciesState advises that leatherbacks along Central Coast be listed as endangered –...

State advises that leatherbacks along Central Coast be listed as endangered – Monterey Herald

MONTEREY — Leatherback sea turtles that migrate through waters off the Central Coast have been recommended for endangered species status by state wildlife officials.

The recommendation Monday by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to list leatherbacks as a state endangered species comes before an October vote by the California Fish and Game Commission.

Being listed as endangered means they are on a fast track to extinction, according to Fish and Wildlife reports (

The reptiles, which can be traced back to the era of dinosaurs, are already protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. If the commission approves the recommendation, then they will receive added protection under state law.

The number of leatherback turtles that feed in Central California waters has declined by 80% during the last two decades, according to research out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

There are an estimated 50 of these turtles in California waters, compared to 178 during the years 1990 to 2003, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Last year whale-watching trips spotted three in Monterey Bay,

“The state report makes it clear that entanglement in fishing gear is the biggest threat to leatherback sea turtles,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the Center, in a press release.

Depending on the size of gill-net meshing, animals can become entangled around their necks, mouths and flippers, according to NOAA Fisheries, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Entanglement can prevent proper feeding, constrict growth or cause infections. Marine mammals entangled in set gill nets can drown.

They are called gill nets because when a fish enters the meshing and then tries to retreat, its gills become caught in the mesh. These nets are deployed outside of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary but can catch migratory marine wildlife, like leatherbacks, that come into the sanctuary waters each year.

Off the Central Coast, the target species for gill nets are swordfish, sharks and tuna. But they also have ensnared humpback and endangered fin whales, porpoises and dolphins, and seals and sea lions, in addition to leatherback sea turtles, NOAA Fisheries reports.

But there are many causes for their decline, not just entanglements. Arguably the more serious threat comes on the other side of the Pacific Ocean where state and federal listings are moot.

A subset of leatherbacks that hatches on beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands migrate 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the cold waters off the U.S. west coast, where they gorge on jellyfish before swimming back.

Clutches of eggs are often illegally poached from the beaches of these South Pacific islands, and the offspring that do hatch sometimes become attracted to beach resort lighting, so they crawl away from the sea instead of toward it, according to NOAA Fisheries. Adults are also victims of poaching. They are also susceptible to marine pollution and debris, sometimes ingesting plastic marine litter.

Scientists are often amazed at leatherbacks’ trans-Pacific migration.

“There are birds that go farther, but they fly. There’s a whale shark that might swim a little further, but it doesn’t have to come up for air. This animal is actually pushing water all the way across the Pacific Ocean,” said Scott Benson, an ecologist with the NOAA’s fisheries service in Monterey, who has studied the turtles for decades. “It’s just a majestic animal.”

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