Protecting the Leatherbacks

Huge, already-endangered migratory sea turtles may become extinct in a few decades, scientists say
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Huge, already-endangered migratory sea turtles may become extinct in a few decades, scientists say

First the West Virginia flying squirrel—now the leatherback turtle? We now can sadly add another animal wonder to the list of declining natural populations: Leatherback turtles, which nest on tropical beaches, near the Pacific islands, and migrate all the way up to the coasts of California and Oregon each year, are in danger of becoming extinct in the next few decades, according to Oceana, a group involved in protecting the world’s ocean inhabitants.

A majestic sea-dweller, the large leatherback turtle, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and reach up to 5 feet in length, has seen populations take a sharp decline over the last decade, which places it squarely on the Endangered Species list.

Numbers of coastal leatherbacks swimming near California and Oregon are anybody's guess, but biologists estimate only between 150 and 380 currently call the American coastal waters a migratory home-away-from-home.

According to Oceana, the turtles’ numbers are declining because of mostly man-made causes, including getting captured in fishing gear, egg poaching, and ingestion of plastics that float in the ocean. Floating plastic resembles jellyfish—a primary food source for the leatherbacks.

Elizabeth Griffin, a marine wildlife scientist working with Oceana, told the LA Times that some governmental action will be necessary to protect the leatherbacks.

“We are pushing Congress to enact comprehensive sea turtle legislation as soon as possible. Problems [are] residential and commercial development of its nestling beaches and getting caught in commercial fishing gear,” Griffin said.

Environmental groups are petitioning the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the leatherbacks’ habitat on some Western-American coastal beaches, as well as “filing a notice of intent to sue over violations to the federal Endangered Species Act,” according to the article.

Back in 1982 scientists estimated that worldwide leatherback numbers were around 115,000, says Oceana. That number has dropped significantly and today, scientists place a guess at only around 20,000 to 30,000.

In terms of nesting numbers, The World Conservation Union has found that leatherback nesting in the Pacific has decreased by over 80% since that last major study was done.

Even though leatherbacks are usually far out to sea, but even the average beach visitor hitting Monterey after a day’s hike can help. It may seem simple enough, but clean up after yourself when having that sunset beach picnic—make sure all plastics and other trash are disposed of properly. That way, a leatherback won't accidentally mistake your trash for lunch.

—Matt Draper

Image Credit: Paul Mannix