Olema, Calif. (Oct. 15, 2016) – Today is Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day. “Critically endangered” Pacific leatherback sea turtles face danger off our coast from California drift gillnets. These mile long nets are set out to float in the open ocean targeting swordfish and thresher shark, but also capture and harm California’s critically endangered leatherbacks. On the 4th anniversary of Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day there is still more to be done to protect these ocean giants.

Four years ago on this day Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1776 into law and declared Oct. 15th an official celebratory day for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles that swim off the coast of California. Turtle Island Restoration Network championed the awareness-raising bill, which was sponsored by California Assemblymember Paul Fong. Now, on Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day, Turtle Island is calling for action to safeguard these gentle ocean giants from the California driftnet fishery, which kills and harms leatherback sea turtles.

“Beloved leatherback sea turtles deserve to swim free from the dangers posed by California driftnets,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.Org). “It is time to shut down this deadly fishery once and for all.”

Turtle Island won a victory this week when NOAA proposed a rule which would put in place limits on the number fin, humpback, and sperm whales, leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley,  green sea turtles, short-fin pilot whales, and bottlenose dolphins that the fishery can kill. This rule, when finalized later in the year, would trigger a closure of the fishery if too many of these species are harmed. View the proposed rule here.

In the past three generations, the population of West Pacific leatherback sea turtles has dramatically plummeted by 83 percent according to IUCN Red List.  Their assessment predicts a population decline of 96 percent by the year 2040, or one generation from now. The West Pacific leatherback population is ranked as “critically endangered” and is in urgent need of protection from driftnet and longline fisheries and direct harvest to avoid extinction.

The IUCN Red List Assessment names fisheries bycatch from driftnets and longlines as the biggest threat to leatherbacks globally, along with human consumption of eggs, meat, or other products, and coastal development followed by pollution and climate change.  Researchers studying the West Pacific leatherback sea turtle population say their, “findings highlight the urgent need for continued and enhanced conservation and management efforts to prevent the collapse of what might be the last remaining stronghold for leatherbacks in the Pacific.” Read the full report in the Ecological Society of America Journal.

Turtle Island won a major victory for Pacific leatherbacks in 2001, with the implementation of the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area.  The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area prohibits drift gillnet fishing between August 15 and November 15 along the California and Oregon coasts from Point Sur to Lincoln City, out to the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone.  The southern boundary extends at 45 degrees, then out to the 200-mile Economic Zone. The PLCA has reduced the number of leatherback deaths in the fishery from 112 between 1990 and 2001; to near zero between 2001 and 2012.

“As consumers we have the power to make choices to protect these giant sea turtles. We can decide not to order swordfish caught in driftnets, and we can demand that leatherback sea turtles are truly protected in California waters,” said Joanna McWilliams of Turtle Island.


Leatherback sea turtles are “the largest, deepest diving, and most migratory and wide ranging of all sea turtles,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Adults can reach 8 feet in length and weigh up to 2000 pounds. Leatherbacks travel more than 6,000 miles across the ocean from Indonesian nesting beaches to feed on jellyfish along the California coast. Learn more here.

Infographic with leatherback sea turtle facts available for media use here.

Read our reports on the California driftnet fishery here, and our report on the impact the fishery has on sea turtles here.


Turtle Island Restoration Network is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 200,000+ members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. For 25 years, Turtle Island Restoration Network has mobilized people to preserve oceans, restore rivers and streams, and protect the marine wildlife – from sea turtles to sharks – that call these blue-green waters home.  SeaTurtles.org