April 4, 2012

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Leatherback sea turtles connect cultures, seas and continents on their epic trans-ocean migrations. For 100 million years they have populated the world’s oceans. Societies around the planet revere them as symbols of good luck, prosperity and fecundity. Yet, these timeless and unique animals are in danger of extinction.

Now, a conservation organization called the Turtle Island Restoration Network hopes to make this iconic animal California’s official state marine reptile in a push to raise awareness about the leatherback’s plight.

“People protect what they love,” said Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist at Turtle Island’s Sea Turtle Restoration Project. He said he was surprised to find how few Californians know that leatherbacks occupy waters just off their coast. Elevating them to the status of state marine reptile will draw attention to their presence, Pincetich hopes, and raise interest in protecting them.

Seven species of sea turtles are found around the world, and all of them are either threatened or endangered. Leatherback populations have declined 90 percent in the last few decades, primarily driven by industrial fisheries that accidentally catch the animals in their nets. Sea turtles are snagged by hooks or take bait meant for swordfish, and the encounter often leaves them injured or drowned. In addition to winding up as bycatch, leatherback adults, young and eggs are poached from nesting beaches for food. Pollution, especially plastic bags that resemble their jellyfish prey, and habitat loss also compound their survival rates.

A leatherback sea turtle in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: Mark Cotter

Policy interventions can improve the situation. Along with the conservation organization Earth Justice, the Turtle Island Restoration Network helped instigate major changes in the Hawaiian long line swordfish fleet. After the organizations drew attention to precipitous declines in leatherback populations, the fishery was completely closed in 2004. It reopened after the entire fleet had replaced their old jay hooks—notorious for snagging turtles—with more leatherback-friendly circle hooks. They also changed their bait from squid to fish in an effort to discourage the turtles from biting. Perhaps most significantly, the policy put a cap on the number of turtles the industry was allowed to accidentally kill in one year—16. In 2011, the National Marine Fishery Service shut down the swordfish fleets in November when they hit their 16th turtle casualty.

The same Pacific populations of leatherbacks that are being protected in Hawaii are swimming to California each year to feed on jellyfish just offshore. The fact that they come to California at all was only discovered only about 25 years ago, and until about 15 years ago researchers had no idea it was an annual trip.

NOAA scientists tag a leatherback for satellite tracking. Credit: National Marine Fisheries Service 

Leatherbacks are believed to live up to 100 years. They don’t reach reproductive age until they are about 15 to 20 years old. Once a baby male leatherback crawls off his birth beach and into the ocean, he will never return to shore. Only females return to lay eggs, meaning researchers know more about females than males since it’s easier to gather data for animals onshore than in the ocean. An estimated 3,000 leatherbacks live in the Pacific, with around 100,000 occypying the waters of the Atlantic.

If the bill proposed by the Turtle Island Reseoration Network (AB 1776, authored in collaboration with Assembly member Paul Fong, Democrat – Cupertino) is passed, the leatherback sea turtle will become California’s state marine reptile and October 15 will be declared Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day.  Currently, California does not have a state marine reptile, and it will be up to the legislature and governor to decide whether or not the leatherback will fill that void.

This campaign comes on the heels of another recent victory, the creation of leatherback critical habitat off the west coast. Following petitions from the Turtle Island Restoration Network, Oceana, the Center for Biodiversity and other members of a conservation coalition, the U.S. plans to establish its largest sea turtle protected area.  Around 41,900 square miles of leatherback habitat will be marked for protection just off the coast of California, Washington and Oregon. This protection means that any federal action that may impact the turtles’ habitat or jellyfish prey—like offshore drilling or intake pipes for cooling plants—must be reviewed.

Leatherbacks are already allotted top-tier protection in the U.S. due to their status as endangered species. Rather than aiming for more protections, Pincetich says, for starters, his goal with this campaign is to raise awareness and then take it from there. “We want to put turtles on people’s radar,” he said. “Really, education leads to action in most cases.” 

Top Image Credit: Sea Turtle Restoration Project

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