For Immediate Release, August 19, 2020


Catherine Kilduff, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 780-8862,

Annalisa Tuel, Turtle Island Restoration Network, (408) 621-8113,  

California Moves to Protect Declining Leatherback Sea Turtles

Prehistoric Reptiles Threatened by Fishing

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— The California Fish and Game Commission voted 5-0 today to advance leatherback sea turtles to candidacy under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The vote follows a June 2020 recommendation by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that increased protections may be warranted. The action came in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Today’s unanimous vote triggers a year-long review by the department to determine if these populations should be formally protected under the California Endangered Species Act. The Act’s protections apply during the candidacy period.

“Leatherback sea turtles got the protections they deserve and desperately need with this vote advancing them to candidate status,” said Catherine Kilduff, a Center attorney. “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.” 

Scientists estimate that West Pacific leatherback sea turtles have declined by more than 80% since the 1980s and are anticipated to decline by 96% by 2040. An estimated 50 West Pacific leatherbacks forage in California waters annually, as compared to 178 West Pacific leatherbacks during the years 1990-2003. Whale-watching trips observed three leatherback sea turtles in August in Monterey Bay.

“Leatherback sea turtles are on the edge of extinction, and this decision brings them one step closer to getting the protections they deserve,” said Annalisa Tuel, policy & advocacy manager for Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We are pleased to see California take responsibility to ensure leatherbacks do not go extinct in our lifetimes.”

Protecting leatherbacks under the state’s Endangered Species Act would make them a state conservation priority. The state law would also provide a backstop to potentially weakened protections for leatherbacks under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A new review of leatherback sea turtle science released last week concludes that West Pacific leatherbacks, one of seven distinct populations of leatherback sea turtles world-wide, face a high extinction risk. The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that all seven leatherback sea turtle populations remain endangered and denied a petition by the commercial fishing industry to relax some protections.

The Center and TIRN sued the Trump administration after a fishing permit issued last year exempted vessels from the federal ban on longline gear off California. Longlines stretch up to 60 miles, with thousands of baited hooks. A federal judge in Oakland ruled Dec. 20 that the federal government had failed to adequately consider impacts on leatherbacks when it revived longline fishing, blocking the permit.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Turtle Island Restoration Network is a global ocean conservation nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and mobilize people around the world to protect marine biodiversity and the oceans that sustain all life on Earth.