Losing the leatherback turtle

The world’s largest living reptile may go extinct so that we can eat swordfish

bY emily Georgy

More than 35 government officials, fishers, scientists, and environmental group leaders convened in late April at the International Leatherback Survival Conference to address the emergency of the Pacific leatherback turtle, a species teetering on the edge of extinction and incapable of recovering without our help.  The conference, initiated by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP) of Marin County, was held at Asilomar in Monterey, California.

The leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, is the world’s largest living reptile, reaching up to nine feet and 2,000 pounds.  Leatherbacks can swim extraordinary distances and dive to extraordinary depths due to their ability to regulate body temperature and their flexible, shell-less, streamlined bodies.  Without a shell, their leathery, oil-saturated skin and underlying plastron enable them to dive over a half a mile deep and still withstand the intense pressures of the deep ocean.

Californians have a particular bond with Pacific leatherbacks, as the enormous ocean-dwellers are the most commonly seen sea turtle off the coast of central and Northern California, particularly in Monterey Bay and off the Farallon Islands.  Here the leatherbacks stay at sea to feed on jellyfish and forage in the nutrient-rich waters brought about by coastal upwelling in early summer.  In late August, the turtles begin their journey southwest to nest on the tropical beaches of Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia.  An Eastern stock of leatherbacks follows a similar migratory path from foraging grounds off the coast of Peru and Chile to nesting grounds in Mexico and Costa Rica.

The leatherback turtle is a 100 million year-old relic of the past, a precursor of dinosaurs and humans alike, capable of surviving Mother Nature’s worst.  Yet despite their natural resiliency and fortitude, leatherbacks have seen their numbers plummet in the last decade, down nearly 95 percent from 91,000 in 1980 to fewer than 5,000 in 2002, making it the world’s most endangered sea turtle and an emblem of the greater crisis of the oceans.

Longlining for leatherbacks?
Scientists are quick to point out that this is not an issue of leatherback infertility, but rather of human-induced pressures.  According to scientists in the June 22, 2000 issue of Nature, the Pacific leatherback will go extinct in the next 5-15 years if we let it:  if the development of critical leatherback nesting beaches is not halted, if the illegal poaching of leatherback eggs continues, and if current fishing practices persist unchanged.

The primary killer of adult leatherbacks is longline fishing, or the method of using numerous baited hooks on monofilament line to catch migratory top predator fish such as swordfish and tuna.  (In the case of leatherbacks, swordfish longliners present a more tangible threat because of the position and depth of the hooks in the water column).  But while it is easy to point fingers, there is no one smoking gun in the leatherback extinction crisis.  The illegal poaching of leatherback eggs and commercial development of nesting beaches are equally accountable for the drastic decline in the Pacific leatherback population.  The thread that ties them all together is consumer demand.  The combined demand for swordfish, for tourism, for the “delicacies” of turtle eggs and meat leave the leatherback with a dismal chance for survival.

A move to action
Given the exigency of the issue, the conference could not — and did not — adhere to the all-too familiar “all talk, no action” format.  Simply advocating on behalf of leatherbacks would have been preaching to the choir.  “We stepped forward to have a meeting like this because we didn’t have any answers,” says Todd Steiner, STRP’s Director.  “We’re an action group and not a talking group, and meetings are normally about talking.  [The issue] still needs to be translated into action.”

So by the third day, after scientists and international government officials had presented the information with urgency, angst gave way to resolve.  Those present set aside their rhetoric and put pen to paper to devise a tangible plan.

What resulted was an agreement that efforts aimed at reducing leatherback mortality must work through existing organizational structures and international treaties, must tag on to existing agendas in order to have the necessary immediate impact.  The conferees organized themselves into an authoritative committee dedicated to the leatherback cause, and drafted the Pacific Leatherback Survival Conference Resolution as their first act.  In it, they:

  • “Request that the governments of all nations where Pacific leatherback turtles nest immediately protect these sites, stop egg collection and maximize hatchling survival;

  • “Request that emergency national and international funds be appropriated to implement all conservation actions necessary for the survival of the species;
  • “Call on the United Nations,

United States and all other nations to institute a moratorium on pelagic longline, gillnet and ther fisheries harmful to Pacific leatherback turtles until such activities can be conducted without arm to the species, with allocation of transitional aid to affected fishers and communities.”

Addressing demand

According to Dr. Larry Crowder of Duke University, longlining is “the world’s most widespread hunting activity.”  Swordfish longlining has a bycatch rate ten times that of other longline fisheries.  Nevertheless, the consumption and demand for swordfish continues to grow world-wide, making longlining both effective and profitable.

The United States is the world’s largest swordfish market, with 25 percent of the world’s total consumption.  In order to support this insatiable demand, countries all over the world deploy scores of longline and gillnet fleets.  As they fish, they deplete coastal and pelagic waters of both swordfish and the ill-fated non-target bycatch, in this case leatherbacks and other sea turtles, sea birds and sharks.

“I really do believe that it’s the magnitude of the problem,” says Steiner.  “It’s not that longlines are worse than gillnets are worse than trawlers.  If there were just one of each of those boats out there, it wouldn’t be a problem.  It’s the number of boats, and the cumulative number of all the different fisheries.”  Each boat may catch only one turtle, but 18,000 boats catching one turtle each create an obvious crisis.

Dr. Jim Spotila, biologist at Drexel University and Chair of the IUCN Leatherback Sea Turtle Working Group, agrees.  “The leatherback sea turtle is one of the most mysterious creatures on Earth.  It would be a tragedy if we were to lose this magnificent creature through human greed and arrogance so Americans could eat swordfish anytime they want.”

Emily George is an intern with Faultline Magazine, where this article first appeared.

Take action:  Contact the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, urging him to support a United Nations moratorium on pelagic longline and gillnet fishing in the Pacific.  Secretary General Kofi Annan, United Nations, New York, NY 10017, (212) 963-4475.  For more info, contact the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, PO Box 400, Forest Knolls, CA.  94933, (415) 488-0370, www.seaturtles.org.