By George Shillinger, PhD
Leatherbacks and other sea turtles are ancient creatures. When dinosaurs roamed the earth 110 million years ago, sea turtles were present, in abundance. But today, numbers have dropped to 0.1 percent of their historic highs.
Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day, established by the State of California in 2013, is a day to raise awareness about the conservation of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Join us in celebrating these amazing animals!
Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle, growing to more than 6 feet long and weighing up to 1,500 pounds. They’re also world travelers, traversing great distances between foraging habitats and nesting beaches. Leatherback turtles nest in the tropics but principally feed (or forage) in cold waters far from the equator, such as those of Chile, California, Canada, northern Europe, southern Africa and New Zealand. These areas are most abundant in jellyfish, a primary food source for leatherback turtles.
All that jellyfish eating is important. Jellyfish eat fish eggs and juvenile fish. Sea turtles help to sustain the health, productivity and biodiversity of marine ecosystems; by keeping jellyfish populations in check, leatherbacks support healthy fisheries. Scientists describe sea turtles as keystone species in recognition of the roles they play to support ecosystem function and balance.
Leatherback turtles are also at risk of extinction in the Pacific Ocean. Whereas some of the 7 global subpopulations of leatherbacks are merely categorized as vulnerable, the IUCN Red List designated the East Pacific and West Pacific subpopulations as critically endangered.
Threats, that’s where we humans come in. Leatherbacks face threats like incidental capture or injury by fisheries, nest disturbance by poachers or unaware beachgoers, habitat loss from coastal development, and accidentally ingesting plastics, like discarded plastic bags easily mistaken for jellyfish.
But leatherbacks are resilient and we are fully committed to their recovery. The Leatherback Trust works with authorities in Costa Rica’s Las Baulas National Park to protect the last mass nesting beach for East Pacific leatherbacks. We also help extend protections to important secondary nesting beaches like Costa Rica’s Playa Cabuyal. We move nests at risk of inundation by rising tides to our nearby hatchery. With the help of community volunteers and our partners in the Park, we clean the beach of debris and waste. We monitor the beach at night for nesting turtles. Our scientists are actively researching leatherbacks and other sea turtles, unlocking more information about their patterns and history in order to inform more effective and targeted conservation efforts.
So, how can we change the future for leatherbacks? Together.
Consider making a few small changes today to make a difference for sea turtles tomorrow. Encourage your friends and family to get on board. Avoid plastic bags and cutlery. Ensure all single use plastics make their way to a recycling bin. Research your seafood: how far did it travel and how was it caught? Follow all posted signs when visiting sea turtle nesting beaches. Consider your impact. And share your thoughts and ideas with us on Facebook and Twitter.
The future of leatherbacks is in our hands. Join us.
George Shillinger (photo above) is the Executive Director of The Leatherback Trust. George has worked in environmental conservation since 1986. He is co-founder of the Great Turtle Race, which uses tracking data from satellite-tagged sea turtles to raise global awareness and funds for the management and conservation of critically endangered leatherbacks. George holds a Ph.D. in Marine Biology from Stanford University.