Endangered sea turtles have long fascinated people and, for years, the US has played a lead role globally in their protection.
But the tide could be turning. The government is now seemingly more interested in rolling back conservation measures than protecting the last of the sea turtles, particularly along the California coast.
At a time when all seven species of sea turtles are considered endangered, and the Pacific leatherback sea turtle more than 100 million years old is on the verge of extinction, decisive action is needed to protect these species.
The US once led the way in the early 1990s by developing and implementing Turtle Excluder Devices that provide sea turtles an escape hatch from shrimp nets. This saved the lives of thousands of sea turtles and 20 other countries soon followed suit.
In 1999, a role-model conservation effort was implemented when the Hawaii swordfish longline fishery was closed to protect endangered sea turtles.
In 2001, these efforts turned to focus on protecting Leatherbacks that visit California waters. A Leatherback Conservation Area was declared to protect a critical habitat for leatherback sea turtles along the California-Oregon coast.
This protection banned drift gillnet fishing, which has a high rate of sea turtle capture, from Monterey Bay to the mid-Oregon coast from August to November when leatherbacks are visiting to feed.
As these critically endangered turtles have traveled more than 6,000 miles across the entire Pacific Ocean from Indonesia to the California coast, it seems they have earned the right to be provided this basic protection.
In 2004, the US created the Leatherback Conservation Area (LCA) by declaring 200 miles of ocean off the West Coast closed to longline fishing in a further effort to protect endangered sea turtles.
Unfortunately, representatives of the drift gillnet fishery industry are attempting to roll back the Leatherback Conservation Area. This is despite the fact that the area was closed precisely because it was found essential to the survival of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Without this sanctuary, the leatherbacks would be placed in jeopardy.
Nothing will have changed the same boats will continue using the same nets in the same area where the leatherbacks are already in further decline. This decision is to be announced in September 207.
In 2004, the Hawaii swordfish longline fishery was reopened, with the claim that new hook technologies would solve the problem of sea turtle capture. This “solution” was short-lived, however, as the fishery was shut down prematurely due to its high capture of endangered sea turtles.
It seems little was learned from this experience. There are now plans to spend federal dollars to test the same hooks in the waters off the California coast. This would be overriding a historical state law that has banned longline fishing in California waters for over a decade.
The Pacific leatherback sea turtle is at historically low levels. Fewer than 2,300 nesting females remain (down from more than 90,000 just two decades ago). The question we should be asking is whether the US wants to be celebrated for its efforts to help bring this species back from the brink, or be seen as contributing to its decline.
Let’s keep the tide turning in the right direction by keeping these model protections in place!
Karen Steele is the Save the Leatherback Campaign Co-ordinator for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
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