California takes step to protect leatherback sea turtles

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California took a step Wednesday toward placing Pacific leatherback sea turtles under state protection as the species faces potential extinction from human-caused problems.

The state Fish and Game Commission voted 5-0 for the species to become a candidate for threatened or endangered status under California’s Endangered Species Act.

That triggers a year-long review before the commission makes a final decision. The turtle will receive state protection during that time.

Conservation groups applauded the move.

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“Leatherbacks have traveled across the Pacific for millions of years. California has now committed to ensuring they survive reckless fishing practices and other threats to their existence,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the action along with the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Pacific leatherback turtles are the deepest-diving and largest turtles, reaching 6.5 feet (2 meters) in length and weighing nearly 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms). They are the only soft-shelled sea turtles.

Leatherbacks can swim more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) a year between nesting and foraging grounds.

The turtles eat jellyfish and California provides critical foraging habitat, said John Ugoretz, pelagic fisheries and ecosystem program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

However, it is estimated that the leatherback population has declined by more than 80% since the 1980s and by some estimates could become extinct within 20 years.

An average of 178 leatherbacks were spotted in California waters each year between 2005 and 2014 but just 50 have been seen annually in recent years, Ugoretz told the commission.

The turtles are vulnerable to being hit by ships, swallowing plastic or tar balls, entanglement in commercial fishing lines, climate change and other human-caused threats, Ugoretz said.

The turtles have been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1970 but critics say they are threatened by a Trump administration effort to end a federal ban on longline fishing off the California coast. Longlines stretch for dozens of miles and have thousands of baited hooks. Last year, a federal judge in Oakland blocked the government from issuing exempted fishing permits, saying the administration had failed to adequately analyze threats to leatherback sea turtles.

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