Rare sea turtle found strangled by crab lines

The carcass of a critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle was found floating in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary during a whale-watching cruise Saturday morning, according to the Oceanic Society.

While traveling from San Francisco to the Farallon Islands at about 10:30 a.m., marine biologist Dr. Chris Pincetich spotted a leatherback sea turtle with rope and polystyrene floats commonly used in crab fishing completely wrapped around its neck:

“I was horrified. … I’ve worked so long on educating about the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. It’s really my worst nightmare to see one killed by the kinds trash I pick up on the beach. Seeing it was really heartbreaking.”

Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service are attempting to recover the carcass for further study.

Ghost fishing, when fishing equipment continues to “fish” even after being discarded, is among the greatest threats to sea turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds, according to Oceanic Society officials.

Sea turtles and other animals that become entangled in marine debris can become exhausted from dragging extra weight, starved by their inability to hunt or feed, or succumb to injuries caused by the entanglement, Oceanic Society officials said.

Pincetich said:

“Pacific leatherbacks are really rare. … It’s critical to finding out whether it’s male or female, if there is an embedded ID tag, and could be valuable to learning about the population as a whole. … There’s also often more complications. It could have died from starvation, pollution, or bits of plastic.”

Pincetich said there are only an estimated 150 Pacific leatherback turtles left in the Bay Area, and their populations are declining.

Crab season ended in June, but hundreds of crab trap floats and ropes still remain at sea, either broken loose or still attached to heavy steel Dungeness crab traps that rest on the sea floor, according to the Oceanic Society.

According to Pincetich, about 20 whales have been found entangled in abandoned fishing gear this year:

“I really hope to see extensive [fishing] gear recovery efforts.”

Pincetich co-authored a bill that designated the leatherback sea turtle as California’s official state marine reptile as of 2012, due to their ties to the land.

Pincetich said:

“This area is critically important for the turtles’ life history. … They swim from Indonesia to California. The protections we have here could be why they’re still alive.”

According to Oceanic society, the Endangered Species Act designates much of the California coast as vital protected habitat for leatherback sea turtles.

Pincetich said:

“They are the largest, deepest diving, fastest swimming sea turtles that grow to seven to eight feet and over one thousand pounds. … They’re living dinosaurs fighting their way from extinction and are the only sea turtle that lives off shore of California.”

Oceanic Society President Roderic Mast said in a statement:

“Leatherbacks are spectacular animals, and their Pacific populations are among the most threatened on Earth. … It is a shame to see them fall prey to preventable human threats right here in California.”