Sea turtle may become California's official marine reptile

California has a state bird, a state flower and even a state fossil — the saber-toothed cat. Joining the bunch could be an official state marine reptile.

A bill introduced last week by Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) would name the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle to a growing list of symbols that includes the California quail, the gray whale, the California poppy and the garibaldi — the state marine fish.

The leatherback, the world's largest sea turtle, would claim an entry in the law books right below — and not to be confused with — its relative the desert tortoise, a landlubber that has held the title of state reptile since 1972.

The symbolic measure, intended to raise awareness about the imperiled creatures, comes as the federal government is setting aside 41,000 square miles of the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington as critical habitat for leatherback turtles, which can weigh in at 2,000 pounds and measure 8 feet long.

Their numbers have dropped by more than 95% since the 1980s because of disease, the harvest of their eggs and entanglement in fishing gear. Leatherback turtles have been on the endangered species list since 1970.

Fong said the designation is part of a "coordinated worldwide conservation effort" to save the sea turtles from extinction. The designation, he said, "will demonstrate California's commitment to protecting leatherback sea turtles and our ocean's ecosystem."

Leatherback turtles have been around for 100 million years and make the longest known migration of any reptile, swimming thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean each year from nesting beaches in Indonesia, Mexico and Costa Rica to the U.S. West Coast, where they feed on jellyfish.

The bill would also declare Oct. 15 Western Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day and encourage the state's public schools to teach about the turtles.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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