California Current: Species at Risk
There are 62 managed species of rockfish (Sebastes and Sebastolobus) off the U.S. West Coast, which together comprise a diverse group of generally long-lived and slow growing fishes. Fishery managers have assessed the population levels of 20 of those rockfish and as of 2009, seven are considered “overfished” with three below the minimum overfished threshold – yelloweye, canary and cowcod – and four others are recovering but still depleted – widow, bocaccio, darkblotched and Pacific ocean perch.
The cowcod rockfish population off southern California is as low as 4 percent of its original population level. Petrale sole, a type of flatfish, are also considered to be overfished and Pacific whiting are projected to be overfished in 2010 if the current population decline continues.
Threatened and endangered species
There are about 30 species of threatened and endangered fish, invertebrates, marine mammals, seabirds and reptiles found in the California current ocean ecosystem. These include a number of whales like the southern resident population of orcas, the southern sea otter, sea turtles, short-tailed albatross, white abalone, and various populations of chinook, chum and coho salmon.
There may be more on the horizon, as the federal government has proposed listing an important forage fish – eulachon (Columbia River smelt) – as threatened and three species of Puget Sound rockfish; bocaccio (endangered), canary and yelloweye rockfish (threatened).
Pacific leatherback sea turtle
In 1982, scientists estimated that there were 115,000 adult female leatherbacks worldwide. Recent estimates have placed the number between 20,000 and 30,000.
The Pacific leatherback is in such severe decline that scientists believe they will become extinct in the Pacific Ocean within the next 30 years unless significant actions are taken to protect them very quickly.
Incidental catch in fishing gear, poaching of their eggs and ingestion of plastics have all contributed to the listing of the leatherbacks as endangered. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has concluded that most leatherback nesting populations in the Pacific have declined more than 80 percent.
Leatherback sea turtles travel the Pacific Ocean from nesting beaches in Indonesia to productive feeding grounds in the California Current.
Oceana has petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate Critical Habitat off northern California and Oregon to protect the leatherback sea turtle’s key migratory and foraging grounds found there.
Pacific loggerhead sea turtle
In the Eastern Pacific, loggerhead sea turtles range from Alaska to Chile, and are known to migrate 10,000 miles from nesting beaches in Japan to Baja California Sur where they feed on dense aggregations of pelagic red crabs.
Pacific loggerheads nest primarily in Japan and Australia, with minor nesting in some south Pacific Islands. Like Pacific salmon, Japanese loggerheads are genetically distinct nesting colonies and females nest at the same beaches on which they were born.
South Pacific nesting is concentrated in Eastern Australia, though some limited nesting occurs in New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and other Pacific Island nations. Loggerheads typically do not reproduce until they reach 30 years old.
Pacific loggerheads have declined 80-86% over the last 15 years. Nesting beaches in Australia have declined 86% in one generation and there are now fewer than 500 females nesting there each year.
The total population of Pacific loggerheads is estimated to be 335,000, yet only about 1,500 of these are nesting females. Given current trends, there is a 50% chance that loggerheads will be extinct in the Pacific Ocean within 60 years.