Endangered Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Killed in Calif Commercial Dungeness Crab Gear - Oceana USA

Endangered Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Killed in Calif Commercial Dungeness Crab Gear

Highlights Need for Further Actions to Address Lost Crab Gear and Advance Pop-up Gear

Press Release Date: December 5, 2023



Ashley Blacow | email: ablacow@oceana.org | tel: Ashley Blacow

Last night, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) confirmed that a critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle was observed entangled and killed in California commercial Dungeness crab gear off the Farallon Islands. The entanglement likely occurred in commercial gear that was lost during a previous fishing season since the current fishing season has not opened. Given the low numbers and continued population decline, the death of a single leatherback sea turtle impacts the species chances for recovery. In addition to four confirmed humpback whales entangled in California Dungeness crab gear this year, this incident highlights the need to address the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear and strengthen efforts to advance and authorize pop-up (ropeless) fishing gear.

Pacific leatherback sea turtles have declined off California by 90% over the last 30 years. Hatched on beaches in Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, adult leatherbacks swim an impressive 6,000 miles from their nesting beaches to ocean waters off California to feed on jellyfish. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to entanglement in vertical fishing lines connecting surface buoys to fishing traps on the seafloor. If the entangled turtle cannot reach the surface to breathe, it drowns. According to CDFW, Dungeness crab fishery participants commonly estimate annual gear loss of 5-10%, meaning between 7,000 to 14,000 traps are lost each season. Combined threats to nesting habitat, poaching, and drowning in multiple types of fishing gear put the future of the world’s largest sea turtle in danger. According to NOAA Fisheries, Pacific leatherback sea turtles are one of the endangered marine species most likely to go extinct in the near future.

The loss of this sea turtle comes soon after California marked its tenth annual Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day—celebrated every October 15—and following the addition of the leatherback sea turtle to the California State Endangered Species Act in 2021. Leatherback sea turtles were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act when it was created in 1973. NOAA Fisheries designated critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for Pacific leatherbacks offshore California, Oregon, and Washington in 2012.

Over the past decade, conservation groups, fishermen, scientists, fishery managers, and funding agencies have worked together to try and develop solutions to prevent whale and sea turtle entanglements. However, this most recent entanglement indicates more needs to be done and more quickly.

Pop-up fishing gear is a way to prevent wildlife entanglements while providing additional fishing opportunities, particularly during spring months when areas are closed to conventional crab gear due to high concentrations of migrating whales. Pop-up gear stores the rope and buoy with the trap on the seafloor until fishermen are ready to retrieve the gear. Last spring, fishermen conducted hundreds of successful trials of Sub Sea Sonics pop-up systems under experimental fishing permits. Larger, commercial scale testing is planned for Spring 2024.

Oceana, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Resource Renewal Institute, Endangered Habitats League, and Ocean Defenders Alliance released statements in response:

“We are devastated to learn that the worst-case scenario has occurred for leatherbacks and the crab fishery. Pacific leatherback sea turtles are on the brink of extinction and California has the responsibility to ensure these sea turtles can safely swim and feed off our coast for many more years to come. Every lost trap is a ticking time bomb for endangered wildlife, and we need stronger measures to prevent and remove lost crab gear. We commend the fishermen who are pioneering innovative pop-up fishing gear to provide new opportunities to profitably catch crab while protecting endangered whales and sea turtles.”

— Dr. Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist for Oceana, and a member of the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group

“Pacific leatherbacks are incredibly rare. Scientific surveys have found fewer and fewer off the West Coast. None were found this year—until this deceased turtle was found tangled up in fishing line. That’s a gut punch. But we also have solutions close at hand. We need swift and decisive action to prevent lost and abandoned fishing gear and speed up the development and use of pop-up gear that allows continued fishing and minimizes risk to leatherbacks, humpback whales, and other marine wildlife.” 

— Andrea Treece, senior attorney for Earthjustice and a member of the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group

“Losing an endangered leatherback sea turtle to entanglement is a shocking sign that we need stronger state action on dangerous crabbing gear,” said Ben Grundy, a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This tragedy occurred before Dungeness crab season has even started, and the risk to sea turtles and humpbacks will skyrocket on opening day. It’s time to accept the fact that lines in the water cause harm. The only way to really protect endangered marine species is to start using pop-up fishing gear immediately.”

— Ben Grundy, Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity

“The severity of this situation necessitates a heightened commitment to the preservation of our state’s vulnerable biodiversity. It is incumbent upon the state of California and its administration to assume a vigilant role and do everything in its power to make it easier for the commercial fleet to transition to a ropeless ocean.”

— Scott Webb, Director of advocacy for Resource Renewal Institute

“New technology provides win-win solutions for fishermen and sea turtles and whales. This unfortunate episode provides further impetus to move towards them.”

—  Dan Silver, Executive Director for The Endangered Habitats League

“Ropeless gear is going to change the way humans interact with the oceans. This gear will not only reduce entanglements with endangered species, it will also make trap and pot trap fishing more cost effective in the long term.”

— Kurt Lieber, Executive Director of Ocean Defenders Alliance

Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-quarter of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 275 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, oil and plastic pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles, whales, and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit Oceana.org to learn more.