By George Shillinger, PhD
One of the most exciting moments for me in 2016 was President Obama’s decision to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. With 582,578 square miles off the coast of Hawaii designated for permanent protection, the U.S. created the world’s largest protected area, hosting more than 7,000 marine species, many of which are endangered or endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Papahānaumokuākea provides undisturbed nesting beaches for threatened Hawaiian green turtles and critical habitat for other species of sea turtles, like critically endangered Pacific leatherbacks and hawksbills as well as endangered loggerheads and olive ridleys, offshore. By achieving buy-in from diverse stakeholders to limit activities like industrial mining and drilling, as well as threats from commercial shipping and destructive fishing methods, protected areas like Papahānaumokuākea help hatchlings survive into adulthood, provide a safe foraging habitat and support females returning to nest and continue the sea turtle life cycle.
Providing safer environments for migratory species like sea turtles requires collaboration across geographic boundaries, cultures and generations. Following the announcement on the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, President Obama addressed the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Every four years, the IUCN gathers diverse international stakeholders, encouraging dialogue to promote strong environmental governance in support of conservation. I felt fortunate to serve as The Leatherback Trust’s delegate at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress. With the different voices and experiences at the table, we delegates learn from each other. I left the meeting dedicated to collaborative impact.
Consumers and legislators are working together to protect sea turtles. Where I live, in California, voters upheld a ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags at large retail stores and many cities across the U.S. have also enacted similar legislation. The Costa Rican government is also considering a ban on single-use plastics. These legislative victories are crucial to protect leatherback sea turtles, which often confuse plastic bags for jellyfish, their primary energy source. Plastic bags can choke sea turtles and ingested plastic particles can block their digestive tracts, causing them to slowly starve to death. I hope to see many more U.S. states and countries around the world adopt legislation to limit single-use plastics.
The Leatherback Trust works collaboratively in a number of ways. We share conservation lessons and encourage active participation in things like beach cleanups, safer seafood choices, and limiting the use of single-use plastics. We collaborate across generations by supporting former egg poachers to become sea turtle champions and providing their children with environmental education programs. We encourage cross-cultural collaboration by bringing American students to places like Costa Rica to participate in local conservation efforts and see sea turtles for themselves. The Leatherback Trust also shares our data, scientific findings, best practices and lessons learned to further conservation efforts with other scientists and NGOs committed to saving East Pacific leatherbacks from extinction. We support transboundary marine conservation in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, bridging efforts across Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica where leatherbacks are a prominent species of conservation concern.
Much work remains to reduce the threats sea turtles face. Many of the gains made in 2016 resulted from collaborative conservation efforts. As we prepare to welcome a new year, The Leatherback Trust remains committed to sharing knowledge, building capacity and creating partnerships. By working together, we can achieve more for sea turtles.
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.