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'Incredibly rare' sea turtle found dead in crab trap off California coast: 'That's a gut punch'

"Every lost trap is a ticking time bomb for endangered wildlife."

"Every lost trap is a ticking time bomb for endangered wildlife."

Photo Credit: iStock

A highly endangered turtle was found dead in November, entangled in abandoned crabbing equipment near some islands 30 miles west of San Francisco. 

What happened?

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the death of a Pacific leatherback sea turtle near the Farallon Islands, per the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ryan Bartling, an environmental scientist with the department, said the turtle got caught in crab gear that was likely left or lost from the previous Dungeness crab commercial fishing season.

He found the death "very unusual," though, as he could recall only one other instance, which was non-fatal, in which a Pacific leatherback sea turtle got entangled on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, Glen Spain, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, noted that it had been seven years since the last sea turtle entanglement related to California Dungeness crab fishery. He also added that fishermen aren't quick to ditch their equipment.

"Gear is not cheap. Nobody leaves it out deliberately," he said.

Why is this concerning?

According to a news release from several environmental organizations published by Oceana, the population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles living off the coast of California has dropped 90% over the last three decades. 

While the International Union for Conservation of Nature labels the leatherback turtle as vulnerable, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that only 2,300 adult females of the Pacific subpopulation remain, making it the "world's most endangered marine turtle population."

"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 a fishing line. That's a gut punch," Andrea Treece, senior attorney for environmental law organization Earthjustice, said in the release. 

"Given the low numbers and continued population decline, the death of a single leatherback sea turtle impacts the species' chances for recovery," the release stated.

What is being done?

The CDFW delayed the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season several times and implemented a 50% reduction in allowed gear for commercial fishery.

However, a 2021 report from the CDFW found that Dungeness crab fishery participants lose 5 to 10% of their gear annually, which comes out to 7,000 to 14,000 lost traps every season.

"Every lost trap is a ticking time bomb for endangered wildlife," Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist for Oceana, said.

Therefore, environmental groups have advocated for pop-up fishing gear, which doesn't have any ropes and should reduce the number of engagements of sea turtles, humpback whales, and other marine animals. 

Kurt Lieber, executive director of the Ocean Defenders Alliance, said in the statement that ropeless gear will "change the way humans interact with the oceans" while making "trap and pot trap fishing more cost effective in the long term."

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