An Endangered Sea Turtle Offers His Two Cents

In recognition of Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day, one endangered sea turtle has some questions for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day
In recognition of Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day, one endangered sea turtle has some questions for the National Marine Fisheries Service. (ACEgan/Shutterstock)

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By D. Coriacea (as told to Andrea A. Treece)

Hey, National Marine Fisheries Service, it’s me, the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Can we talk?

Earlier this year you named me one of your “Species in the Spotlight.” At first I assumed you put me in the spotlight because I am a pretty impressive species. I can reach nearly the length and weight of a Smart Car, can dive nearly 5,000 feet under the ocean’s surface, and can cross nearly 7,000 miles of open ocean from Indo-Pacific nesting beaches to feed on jellyfish off the coast of California. And I have cool spots on my sleek, leathery shell. Snazzy!

As it turns out, you actually put me in the spotlight because I’m critically endangered. As you note in your "Spotlight" plan, the western Pacific leatherback population has fallen by 80 percent since the 1980s and is predicted to have declined by 96 percent by 2040. That means I’m one generation away from near extinction. It’s hard to believe that turtles like me who were around when dinosaurs roamed on land could soon be lost forever. The asteroid hit and we just shrugged and kept on swimming. How could we get wiped out now?

Actually, I can think of a few ways. Beach development and sea level rise are destroying our nesting beach habitat. People poach our eggs. And way too many of us drown in fishing gear like longlines and gillnets. In fact, bycatch of adult leatherbacks is the leading cause of our decline. Even though I spend most of my life under the ocean’s surface, I breathe air, which means I have to get to the surface regularly. If I get tangled in a net or a fishing line and can’t escape, I’ll drown.

I’m a turtle, so I don’t really do statistics, but what you’re saying about our numbers feels right. It is getting harder to find a mate. I don’t just mean finding that special, fine-looking turtle who really gets you—I mean just literally finding a mate. And dodging the gauntlet of longlines and gillnets is stressing me out. When I heard that you were getting serious about helping me and my hatchlings, I thought things might turn around. Now that I’m in the spotlight, you’re going to do everything you can to protect me, right? That’s what your plan says you’ll do.   

Don’t take this the wrong way, but so far that spotlight feels more like a bullseye. Since you put me here, National Marine Fisheries Service, you’ve done some puzzling things. Like entertaining a proposal to allow the use of drift gillnets in one of my feeding hotspots off the California coast—the “Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area,” as you call it—during the times of year when I go there to eat. You haven’t granted permission for that yet, thankfully. Please don’t. If it’s not clear why I’m so worried about those nets, let me offer an analogy. Imagine there were mile-long, multi-story nets hanging between your house and the grocery store. Then imagine that you go shopping at night and all the street lights are off. Oh, and hold your breath until you get there. Getting dinner just got a lot tougher, didn’t it? 

You estimated that the drift gillnet fishery snared four of my kind in 2013 alone. Four is a pretty big number when your population is already taking a nosedive. In fact, scientists say that you need to limit human-caused Pacific leatherback deaths off the U.S. West Coast to no more than one of us every six years if we’re going to have a shot at crawling back from the brink of extinction. (Personally, I vote for zero.)

In addition to the drift gillnets, you’re considering granting another “exempted fishing permit” to investigate the development of a full-scale pelagic longline fishery for swordfish and tuna off the U.S. West Coast. Longline gear is a major problem for us leatherbacks. A typical set of longline gear is 30 to 40 miles long and dangles more than 1,000 hooks that remain in the water from 12 to 24 hours. I can’t hold my breath that long. The permit you’re considering  would put more than 325,000 new hooks into the water over a two-year period, right in my migratory pathway.

You already know that pelagic longline gear tangles, hooks, injures and drowns turtles like me. And we’re not the only ones in danger. You’ve already “tested” deep-set longline gear off the West Coast and seen that most of the animals it catches are non-target species. For instance, it caught 41 blue sharks (a species they didn’t want) for every swordfish (the species they were actually trying to catch). Longline fisheries are a major threat to dozens of species, including albatrosses, whales, dolphins, other sea turtle species, billfish and sharks.

As I understand it, there are better ways to catch swordfish and tuna that would let us leatherbacks off the hook. (See what I did there? This little reptilian brain can be pretty snappy.) Pilot testing of buoy gear shows that it can catch higher quality swordfish without posing a danger to turtles and other marine animals. Maybe you could spend your energy on getting fisheries to transition to gear that spares leatherbacks rather than expanding the use of turtle-threatening gillnets and longlines. That seems more consistent with your Spotlight plan to “marshal resources” for “immediate, targeted efforts” to prevent me and my kind from going extinct. 

Whatever you do, please make sure it’s working to save the Pacific leatherback. We’ve been around a really long time and we’ve enjoyed seeing you humans evolve. We’d love to hang out with you for at least another few millennia.

As a senior attorney with the Oceans Program, Andrea's work focuses on protecting marine biodiversity and promoting abundant, resilient ocean ecosystems.

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