An area of 108,556 square kilometres, roughly the size of Guatemala, has recently been designated by the US federal government as critical habitat for the leatherback turtle. This new protected area spans coastal waters from California to Washington State, and it is hoped that it will contribute to the conservation of this enigmatic marine reptile, the largest turtle species in the world and one of the most threatened.
With this designation comes the possibility that the government will consider regulations relating to activities that could harm leatherback turtles or their primary prey species, jellyfish. Industry areas which could potentially be targeted include aquaculture, nuclear power or tidal wave plants and offshore drilling, as well as pollution and agricultural waste.
Beyond leatherbacks and jellyfish, the implementation of strict regulations would also be likely to benefit many more marine species living in the area.
Migration routes at risk
Unfortunately, the new critical habitat does not cover the migration routes which are a fundamental part of the life of the leatherback turtle, and as a result these areas remain unprotected.
“This is a major decision to protect feeding hotspots for endangered leatherback sea turtles, but the federal government failed to acknowledge that the turtles need safe passage to get there,” says Ben Enticknap, Oceana‘s project manager for the Pacific Ocean.
Leatherback turtles undertake huge migrations each year, covering a distance of approximately 9,700 kilometres from nesting sites in Indonesia to feeding grounds off the west coast of the USA. Had the migration routes been included in the newly appointed critical habitat, a further 74,296 square kilometres of ocean would have been afforded protection.
Further protection required
Named for its flexible shell which is covered in a thin layer of leathery skin, the leatherback turtle is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, having suffered an 80% decline in its global population since 1980. This figure rises to a catastrophic 95% of the population in the Pacific.
The leatherback turtle faces many threats, including egg collection for human consumption and ship strikes. Plastic pollution is a further contributor to the decline in leatherback numbers, as the material is often mistaken for jellyfish and ingested, ultimately leading to starvation.
The primary threat to the leatherback turtles, however, comes from commercial fisheries, with these marine reptiles frequently becoming entangled in longlines or nets and subsequently drowning. Unfortunately, the lack of protection being afforded to the migration routes of this reptilian giant means that additional regulations will not be applied to these fisheries.
“Habitat protections are vital to the survival of leatherbacks. We urgently need migration safeguards for these ancient animals as they make the longest, most epic journey of any creature on the planet to get to our West Coast every year,” says Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
Read more on this story at Mongabay.com – Leatherback sea turtles granted massive protected area along U.S. west coast.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author