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Unraveling Protections for the Pacific Leatherback

The Pacific leatherback sea turtle is critically endangered, and a new application for fishing in protected waters could prevent this population’s ability for future recovery.

Herve06/iStock

The Pacific leatherback sea turtle is critically endangered, and a new application for fishing in protected waters could prevent this population’s ability to recover.

Herve06/iStock

Weighing in at 2,000 pounds and stretching 7 feet long, the Pacific leatherback sea turtle is the largest turtle on earth. Boasting the widest range of any reptile on the planet, it traverses the globe, swimming nearly 7,000 miles from its nesting beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands across the Pacific Ocean to feeding grounds off the U.S. West Coast. This graceful creature is the only remaining representative of a family of turtles whose roots extend back more than 100 million years, to a time when dinosaurs roamed.

But the critically endangered Pacific leatherback may soon join the ranks of the dinosaurs unless we significantly advance our conservation measures. Their population has declined dramatically in recent years due to accidental capture in fishing gear, hunting, egg harvest, loss of nesting habitat to coastal development and ocean trash that they mistake for food.

In spite of all of these dangers, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is considering an application for an exempted fishing permit that will weaken protective measures for the Pacific leatherback, rather than improve them. If approved, this permit could put another nail in the coffin for this sea creature. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature projects that this subpopulation will decline 96 percent by 2040 to just 260 adult females.

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The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area is designated by the green border.
Oceana

The permit in question seeks to allow the use of drift gillnet gear to catch swordfish in the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area. This region off the California coast has been a safe haven for the turtles since 2001, when the use of drift gillnet was banned from August 15 to November 15 each year to protect leatherbacks as they complete their migration from the Indo-Pacific. They flock to these particular waters during these months to feast on jellyfish and other soft-bodied animals.

Predictably, drift gillnet gear won’t discriminate between swordfish and other sea creatures. It floats in the water, a voracious wall of nylon mesh hanging in wait for any unsuspecting animal to pass. Designed to entrap fish that swim into its path, these gillnets allow an animal’s head to pass through the netting but not its body. When an unlucky fish (or turtle, seal, dolphin or whale) struggles to recede from the net to free itself, it only becomes more entangled.

While turtles can remain underwater for 85 minutes without taking a single breath, being entangled in a drift gillnet eventually causes them to drown. A turtle struggling to free itself can use up its available oxygen in a few minutes, and these nets are generally left to soak for up to 10 hours before they’re pulled back to the fishing boat. Even if a turtle is able to escape the net, the nylon can tighten around the turtle's soft body parts and create deep cuts that can lead to infection, limited mobility or the complete loss of a limb. The western Pacific leatherback has declined 80 percent since the 1980s largely due to incidental capture in fishing gear.

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An illustration demonstrating the use of drift gillnet.
Drawing by Keith W. Cox

Earthjustice recently submitted comments to the NMFS, highlighting that the use of drift gillnet within this protected conservation area would violate the NMFS’s responsibilities under laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The NMFS itself has determined that reducing fisheries’ bycatch of the Pacific leatherback is essential to promoting its survival and recovery. 

Regulators have long known that drift gillnets can entangle and kill leatherbacks, as well as dozens of other species. That’s why its use has been banned for decades on the high seas—precisely because the United States and other countries have recognized that it “is a destructive fishing practice that poses a threat to living marine resources of the world’s oceans…” We insist that the NMFS prioritize the recovery of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle rather than wasting valuable public resources by expanding the use of fishing gear that further endangers the future of this iconic, yet imperiled species.

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