Episode 1 – Leatherback Turtles

Fast Facts :

• Main threat to marine turtles: being unintentionally caught in fishing hooks and nets
• How many are caught this way each year: 200,000 Loggerhead and 50,000 Leatherback turtles are caught annually by commercial long line fisheries
• How Many Leatherbacks are there: around 34,000 nesting females
• How important is Chiriqui Beach: It’s the most important nesting site for leatherbacks in the Western Caribbean with over 4000 nests laid every year.

Leatherback Turtles, Beaches and Oceans

The leatherback turtle, the largest marine reptile on earth, has survived for more than a hundred million years, but it is now facing extinction. Leatherback turtles are named after their shell, which is leathery rather than hard like other turtles. They are the largest mariqqne turtle species, reaching up to almost two-meters in length and weighing more than 500 kilograms.

Leatherback turtles are officially listed as ‘critically endangered’ and there are thought to be about 34,000 nesting females left. In the eastern Pacific alone, the number of leatherback turtles has decreased from more than 90,000 adults in 1980 to less than 2,000 adult females in the year 2000. It’s crucial this doesn’t happen to the population in the Atlantic.

Another key threat facing leatherback (and other marine) turtles is the destruction of the beaches where they lay their eggs.

Just like salmon, which swim back to breed only in the rivers where they were spawned, female leatherback turtles always return to the region where they were born. These beaches - in their pristine states - are fast being degraded by coastal development and if this continues the leatherbacks will have no-where to lay their eggs.

Protecting turtle nesting beaches is vital, but by-catch is probably the single greatest threat to leatherbacks. What is by-catch? Conventional fishing gear does often not allow users to selectively target their fish catch. As a result, marine mammals like whales and other species such as birds, and sea turtles are also caught in the nets and often killed.

More than 250,000 Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles are caught annually by commercial long line fisheries (one method of industrial fishing). More than 25 per cent of everything caught in the course of fishing is thrown over the sides of fishing boats, dead or dying.

Where Chiriqui Beach’s turtles go after nesting remains, for the most part, a mystery. Scientists do know that Leatherbacks in the Atlantic swim far and wide to reach their feeding grounds. This increases the risk they’ll be caught up in fishing nets, meaning there will be fewer and fewer turtles that live long enough to make it back to the beaches on which they were born, and reproduce.
To be able to design a comprehensive conservation plan it is crucial to know where turtles go, how deep they dive and what they do. Given that turtles spend most of their lives in the water they need to be safe in the oceans as well as on the beaches that they lay their eggs.
© Animal Planet
Animal Planet
© Animal Planet

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WWF and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation at Chiriqui Beach

Chiriquí beach is part of the Damani-Isla Escudo de Veraguas Wetlands Reserve, a protected area of approximately 24,000 hectares designated by the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous territory. There are local communities that live at both ends of the beach and they’ve decided in recent years to protect the marine turtles that nest there.

In 2003, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and other partners, including WWF, started a project to make sure there was regular monitoring and data collection of nesting turtles. As well as gathering vital data on the nesting and hatching of turtles, the CCC and WWF project aims to link conservation efforts with improvements in the livelihoods of local people.

Currently, there isn’t any tourism at Chiriqui Beach, but the local Ngöbe community believes that the beauty of the area, as well as the sea turtles, make it an attractive tourist destination. At the same time they are concerned about the negative aspects of uncontrolled tourism. WWF’s project in Chiriqui is helping the community draw up and implement a sustainable tourism plan.

CCC and WWF also work on fitting satellite transmitters to leatherback turtles. This enables researchers to record turtle migration routes in the central and southern Atlantic, where their movements are by-and-large unknown.

Funding is also needed to ensure that the regular monitoring and protection of the sea turtles that come up to nest can continue.

How You Can Help Save Sea Turtles

• Support WWF’s work on the ground http://www.panda.org/join
• Join Panda Passport, WWF’s online lobbying site http://www.passport.panda.org
• Travel to marine turtle sites using responsible tour operators - your cash will help local communities
• Don’t buy souvenirs made from turtle shell

Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.