Photo courtesy NOAA
Leatherback sea turtles and sharks need protection from industrial fisheries by identifying and creating marine protected areas along the Pacific leatherback’s migratory routes, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress resolved.
More than 8,000 scientists, government officials and environmental organizations from 250 nations gathered at the IUCN congress overwhelmingly supported the resolution, designed to shield the critically endangered Pacific leatherback and the hammerhead shark from longline and gillnet fisheries.
“Our plan allows one of the largest reptiles on Earth to continue its 100-million-year-old existence by opening and closing portions of the migration corridor to fishing as turtles enter and exit the area,” said Randall Arauz, president of PRETOMA, a Costa Rica-based conservation charity that sponsored the resolution. “We believe this corridor is also used by other endangered species, such as hammerhead sharks, and would benefit many other threatened marine species.”
Photo courtesy NOAA
The resolution drew from the scientific recommendations based upon fieldwork and analysis by Stanford University researcher George Shillinger and others who believe their work may make adaptive closures of fisheries a realistic conservation approach.
“It’s time to turn the high-tech science into political will and conservation action for critically endangered leatherbacks,” Shillinger said.
Satellite tracking data from the Stanford project shows that after nesting on the beaches in Playa Grande, Costa Rica, Pacific leatherbacks swim toward the Galapagos Islands.
Shillinger used data from the satellite tracking and remote sensing to describe the effects of ocean currents, phytoplankton distribution and sea-floor topography on leatherbacks’ distribution and movement; and then developed a model that could predict the presence or absence of the sea turtles.
Photo by George Shillinger/Stanford News Service
The scientists believe their models would identify areas of highest risk of turtle interaction with fisheries and provide governments and fisheries with the opportunity to protect leatherbacks as they move through their annual migrations.
Stanford’s project is part of the Census of Marine Life’s (CoML) Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) initiative, a multidisciplinary, international research program utilizing electronic tags to track the migrations of a variety of open ocean animals.
“Leatherback sea turtles survived the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but they are unlikely to survive our unsustainable appetite for swordfish and tuna,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of the U.S.-based Turtle Island Restoration Network and a member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group. “If leatherbacks are to survive the coming decades, we must convert talk to action; otherwise we will lose one of the most ancient creatures on the planet, in the next ten to thirty years.”
Leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean have declined by more than 90 percent over the past three decades as a result of drowning in industrial longline and gillnet fisheries targeting swordfish, sharks, and tunas.
Egg harvesting, marine plastic debris and loss of nesting beaches due to global warming-induced sea level rise also threaten the leatherback.
If current trends continue, conservationists predict, Pacific leatherbacks will go extinct within decades.
Leatherback Sea Turtle (National Geographic)
Leatherback Turtle (NOAA)
Leatherback turtles’ route may offer roadmap to salvation (Stanford News Service)
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Watch a National Geographic News video about Leatherback protection efforts in Costa Rica:
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Producer/Videographer: Stefan Lovgren; Additional video: Alexander Gaos; Jane Stevens/TOPP.org