Not many people have seen a green, a loggerhead or a leatherback sea turtle on the Washington Coast. And if they have, it had likely been stranded or dead.
These large, heavy and long-lived reptiles are rarely seen here, but whether a species is protected by the federal or state governments does not depend on how many people see a particular animal.
What it does depend on is the science and the will of people of an agency or an organization, or as individuals, to make it happen.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking public comments on the protective status of these three species of sea turtles. Forty-five species of fish and wildlife are listed for protection as state endangered, threatened or sensitive.
The public can comment through Feb. 13 on recommendations to keep leatherback sea turtles listed as a state endangered species, elevate the level of protection for loggerhead sea turtles to endangered from threatened species status, and keep green sea turtles listed as a state threatened species.
Leatherback sea turtles have been a state endangered species since 1981. The western population migrates across the Pacific from nesting beaches in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to forage each summer in waters off the west coast of North America.
They regularly occur in our state’s coastal and shelf waters, although there are only 78 documented records.
Their arrival coincides with the development of seasonal aggregations of their preferred prey, jellyfish and other soft-bodied organisms.
“Leatherbacks are pretty cool and impressive (but) they don’t nest here,” Anderson said.
The average life span in the wild of a leatherback is 45 years. They can be up to 5 feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
That population has declined by 80 percent since the mid-20th century, primarily because of harvest by humans, animal predation on turtle eggs and entanglement of turtles in marine debris.
Loggerhead sea turtles, rarely seen in Washington, have been listed as a threatened species in Washington since 1990. They are part of the north Pacific population, which migrates from nesting sites near Japan to waters off the west coast of North America.
That population declined substantially in the last half of the 20th century. Threats to these turtles include harvest by humans, incidental capture in fisheries and damage to nesting habitat.
A loggerhead’s average life span in the wild is more than 50 years. It can be 3 feet long and weigh up to 250 pounds.
Green sea turtles that occur in Washington belong to the east Pacific population, which is mostly found in waters from San Diego, California, south to Peru and the Galapagos Islands.
The global population of greens has declined by up to two-thirds in the past 100 to 150 years. Those that reach our shores have likely come from nesting beaches in Mexico.
Greens can live more than 80 years in the wild. They can grow to 5 feet and weigh up to 700 pounds. They face similar threats as loggerhead sea turtles.
Comments from the public are solicited in the decision-making process. The response varies dramatically depending on the species, or the habitat.
The number of comments is often higher when in response to a large or charismatic species, or one that is iconic, said Hannah Anderson, listing and recovery section manager for the DFW.
“The most charismatic species (draws) the most comments. Sometimes we get just one, sometimes very detailed letters with new information,” Anderson said.
All species, however, are “an intricate part of the system, and without them there’s a chance that the system could go awry,” she said.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.
Information can be found at http://wdfw.wa.gov/news/nov1516c. Written comments on the reviews and recommendations can be submitted via email to TandEpubliccom@dfw.wa.gov or by mail to Hannah Anderson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia WA 98501-1091.