The depletion of fish stocks from global fisheries has been a long-standing concern. More recently, incidental catch of non-target (termed bycatch) vertebrates also has been proposed as a serious conservation issue. Here we present a bycatch assessment for loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles that are incidentally caught by global pelagic longlines. We integrate catch data from over 40 nations and bycatch data from 13 international observer programmes. Despite infrequent rates of encounter, our analyses show that more than 200 000 loggerheads and 50 000 leatherbacks were likely taken as pelagic longline bycatch in 2000. Our analyses suggest that thousands of these turtles die each year from longline gear in the Pacific Ocean alone. Given 80–95% declines for Pacific loggerhead and leatherback populations over the last 20 years, this bycatch level is not sustainable. Adopting a large-scale, synthetic approach is critical to accurately characterize the influence of global fisheries bycatch on globally distributed and imperilled pelagic vertebrates.