Endangered sea turtles. These graceful creatures have long fascinated people and for years the United States 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 the Pacific leatherback sea turtle is on the verge of extinction, decisive action is needed to protect these species. And this has been the role that the United States once played. They led the way in the 1990s with Turtle Excluder Devices for shrimp trawlers that provide sea turtles an escape hatch from nets. This saved their lives by the thousands and 20 other countries soon followed suit. In 1999, a role-model conservation effort was implemented when a portion of the Hawaii swordfish longline fishery was closed to protect endangered sea turtles.
In 2001 these efforts turned to protecting Leatherbacks that visit California waters. A Leatherback Conservation Area was declared to protect their critical habitat. This protection banned drift gillnet fishing from Monterey Bay to the mid-Oregon coast between August to November each year while leatherbacks are visiting to feed almost entirely on jellyfish.
As these turtles are critically endangered and have traveled across the Pacific (over 6000 miles) from Indonesia, it seems they have earned the right to be provided this basic protection. Finally, since the beginning of the 1990s, California has closed their waters within 200 miles from shore to longline fishing.
Recently, however, the tide seems to be changing for sea turtles in California, and not for the best. The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering the rollback of the Leatherback Conservation Area. This is despite the area being closed precisely because it was found the survival of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle would be placed in jeopardy otherwise. Nothing has changed – the same boats using the same nets will be fishing in the same area and the leatherbacks are now in even further decline.
In 2004 the Hawaii swordfish longline fishery was reopened; however, this was short-lived with the fishery being shut down prematurely due to its high capture of endangered sea turtles.
It seems little was learned. There are now plans in progress by the federal government to allow a longline fishery along the California coast for the first time in history, overriding the historical state ban on this gear type.
The question we should be asking at this time, when the Pacific leatherback sea turtle is at historically low levels (as little as 2,300 nesting females left from over 90,000 just two decades ago) is whether the United States wants to be celebrated for its efforts to help bring this species back from the brink, or be seen as contributing to its decline.
Lets keep the tide turning in a good direction by keeping these role model protections in place!