Leatherback Sea Turtles

By Amelia Lipcsei

Over the past three generations, the global population of leatherback sea turtles has declined more than 40 percent. With an increase in the production of fisheries, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles become entangled on longline hooks, shrimp trawl nets, and in fishing gillnets. Unable to breath underwater, most turtles drown once caught. Out of all of the leatherbacks, Atlantic turtles feel the impact of fisheries the most. Their long trek across the Atlantic Ocean for migration heightens their chances of running into longline fisheries exponentially. Unfortunately, as fishing activity continues to bolster, interactions with fisheries becomes more of a threat for these endangered species. 

Habitat loss also poses an increasing threat to leatherbacks. Dependent on beaches for nesting, these turtles often find themselves unable to find safe sites to lay their eggs. Human coastal developments, vehicle traffic on beaches, and rises in sea level due to climate change all contribute to hazardous conditions for leatherbacks. Likewise, their feeding grounds, coral reefs and seagrass beds, also become damaged from human activities. Nutrient run-off from agriculture, the piling of trash in the ocean, and sedimentation all assist in the destruction of underwater habitats. 

In Southeast Asia, the legalization of egg collection leads to thousands of eggs being removed from nesting sites each year. This overharvesting of eggs and the killing of adult turtles in Indonesia has caused populations to deteriorate extensively throughout the region. Likewise, leatherbacks in Malaysia have gone extinct locally due to the gathering of eggs. Despairingly, the collection of eggs endures even in Central America, regardless of protective measures being put into place. Obtaining eggs illegally, some people in the United States use them for commercial use or subsistence.  

Fortunately, preventative actions can be taken to help slow the species decline. Attending beach clean-ups, reducing plastic waste, and removing beach equipment at night all become necessary steps for humans to take in the flight to aid turtles. For more information on ways to support leatherbacks, visit NOAA, Turtle Island Restoration, or WWF.