The Critically Endangered Species File: Leatherback Turtle

By Sean Crawley

Each issue of SHIFT presents one species of life that is classified as critically endangered, Homo sapiens excluded. By definition, whether it be by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), or your nation state’s environmental governance structure such as the Department of the Environment in Australia, critically endangered essentially means that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.

leatherback turtleCommon Names: Leatherback, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Leathery Turtle, Luth, Trunkback Turtle, Trunk Turtle, Coffin-back

Species: Dermochelys coriacea

Range: Leatherback turtles are found around the world

Coastal nesting sites may be tropical/subtropical, but foraging range extends into sub-polar oceans

Threats:

  • Loss and degradation of nesting habitat
  • Oil spills and marine pollution
  • Ocean plastic
  • Fishing bycatch
  • Poaching
  • Global warming
  • Disease

Further Considerations:

Though comprehensive data is sadly lacking, all evidence available demonstrates this species is in dramatic decline. Some data quote global populations in 35,800 adult females in 2004, a massive decline from the 1982 figure of 115,000. In the Pacific, where numbers have declined the most, estimates are that there has been an 80 – 95% decline in numbers over the last 20 years.

This turtle is a truly global animal. Its conservation can be justified, as with any species, on biodiversity grounds. But perhaps another unique reason for humans to increase efforts to save this species is that it is a major consumer of jellyfish. The recent evidence of jellyfish blooms, and the threat they pose to the health of the oceans, surely provides grounds for protecting the leatherback and other turtles from disappearing from the ocean ecosystem.

Plastic waste – particularly degrading plastic bags – is mistaken as food by these turtles. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, created by humankind with the assistance of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, should embarrass every one of us. The simplest action you can take as an individual is to eradicate plastic bag usage.

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