Leatherback Sea Turtle: The story of an ancient mariner.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, flickr creative commons.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, flickr creative commons.

This week, we're shining the spotlight on Canada's most threatened flora and fauna; the ones that are at risk of no longer blooming, crawling, or running within our borders. Climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction are just some of the anthropogenic factors contributing to declining numbers of these plants and animals. Here, we reflect on the importance of species diversity, and what people like you and I can do to help maintain ecological integrity within Canada. 

Common Name: Leatherback Sea Turtle

Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea

Where in Canada: West coast

IUCN Status: Vulnerable (globally)*

*The West Pacific Ocean Subpopulation is listed as Critically Endangered. The Northwest Atlantic Ocean Subpopulation is listed as Least Concern.

…you sense the life force that has carried leatherbacks past every obstacle for a hundred million years. That span of time saw a giant asteroid fall from the sky, ice sheets grow and collapse, and countless other creatures flourish and die out. But leatherbacks went on roaming the ocean and climbing the beaches to nest.
— Tim Appenzeller, National Geographic

The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the biggest, deepest-diving, longest traveling reptile on the planet, and has been in existence for over 100 million years - and was in existence when dinosaurs walked the Earth. These turtles have endured millions of years of global change, but this ancient marine species is currently facing a serious threat -- one that could wipe them from existence. That threat is human beings.

Photo: rustinpc, flickr creative commons.

Photo: rustinpc, flickr creative commons.

Leatherback turtles are found in every ocean in the world. Making the longest migration of any reptile species, the leatherback will lay eggs on the tropical sandy beaches, before traveling to temperate sub-polar regions to feast on the extensive populations of jellyfish. Some turtles have been tracked traveling over 10,000 kilometers in a single year.

 

Here in Canada, we see leatherbacks on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The west Pacific Ocean leatherbacks nest primarily in Papua New Guinea and Malaysia, then travel across the Pacific to forage off the Queen Charlotte Islands, Hecate Strait and the Georgia Strait between July and September. The northwest Atlantic Ocean leatherbacks are found all year round off the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador. The cool Canadian waters provide these animals with ample jellyfish to forage on.

Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife, flickr creative commons.

Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife, flickr creative commons.

On June 21, 2013 the Leatherback turtle was listed as a “vulnerable” species by the IUCN due to continued population declines. It is estimated that there remains only 34,000 to 36,000 nesting female leatherback turtles in the world.

Globally, there are several threats that are causing these declines. Here in Canadian waters, accidental capture and entanglement, and ingestion of marine plastic are their biggest threats. Turtles are easily caught in nets and fishing or buoy lines, preventing the turtle from being able to surface and breathe.

Leatherbacks venture into our waters to feast on an array of jellyfish. Unfortunately, a plastic bag does not look any different from food to a sea turtle. Plastics can block the intestines, causing the animal to starve.

You might ask yourself -- why does it matter that we protect a species that only spends part of its time in Canada? These turtles are the living representatives of a group of reptiles that have been on this Earth for millions of years, making them a fundamental link to understanding the history and evolution of marine ecosystems. It is our responsibility to ensure that this long-living species continues to thrive for another million years.

Photo: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, flickr creative commons.

Photo: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, flickr creative commons.

Thankfully, there are lots of people around the world that are working to preserve leatherbacks and their critical habitats. Here’s what you can do:

  • Educate yourself on the issues. Go online and read more about the biology of the animal, track their movements through the Sea Turtle Conservancy, and gain a better understanding of what scientists are doing to protect the species. Talk to friends and family about what you learn.
  • Report turtle sightings. If you spot a leatherback turtle in the water, contact the Department of Fisheries and Oceans by telephone or email. If you are in British Columbia, you can also contact the British Columbia Cetacean and Sea Turtle Sightings Network at 1-866-I SAW ONE (1-866-472-9663), or fill out an online form at https://www.vanaqua.org/act/direct-action/bc-cetaceans-sighting-network.
  • Reduce the amount of plastic garbage you produce. A sea turtle is not going to know the difference between a plastic bag and food, so you need to do what you can to ensure that your trash doesn’t end up in a turtle’s stomach.
  • Participate with local partners. Volunteer with an organization that is doing research on the leatherback, sign up for a shoreline clean-up to keep our beaches and oceans clean. You can make a donation or  adopt a sea turtle through different organizations to raise money for their conservation programs.

Every little bit counts. Do your part to help ensure these ancient mariners have a chance to live through many more global changes that are sure to come.

You can learn more about species in Canada on the IUCN Red List by searching here.