13 Oct Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day: History and Importance
California’s Leatherback Conservation Day became law in 2012, thanks to the work of then Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) lead campaigner Teri Shore, who first proposed it and found state legislators to sponsor the legislation. (Teri is now a TIRN Board member).
The California Marine Reptile Bill in 2012, AB 1776, was sponsored by TIRN and designated Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day on October 15 every year, and also prioritized conservation of this critically endangered sea turtle species. The state law also calls for increased education and outreach to schools and all Californians about the importance of leatherback sea turtles along our coast.
Pacific leatherbacks are on the verge of extinction, with populations of nesting females dropping from tens of thousands 40 years ago to just a couple of hundred in the eastern Pacific, and less than 3,000 in the western Pacific.
The California Marine Reptile Bill was only one small part of our strategy to bring Pacific leatherbacks back from the brink of extinction, a program that will continue until we reach this goal.
Many other parts of the strategy have succeeded in reducing mortality, and many additional strategies are underway. Two successful approaches featured protection for habitat and status:
Leatherback Critical Habitat
- In a significant conservation victory, nearly 42,000 square miles of ocean waters along the U.S. West Coast were designated as protected critical habitat under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including 16,910 square miles of California’s coastal waters.Critical habitat designations aid the recovery of endangered and threatened species by protecting habitat that they rely on. The Pacific leatherback critical habitat is an area where leatherbacks feed on jellyfish, the main food source for all leatherbacks. When feeding in their critical habitat, they eat several hundred pounds of jellyfish each day.. Without a safe haven to feed, they could not survive their migration back across the Pacific. This Pacific leatherback critical habitat is the largest protected area for sea turtles in U.S. conservation history! For more information, you can view it here.
Endangered Status under California’s Endangered Species Act
A major threat to leatherbacks is from deaths and injuries from fishing gear. Two industrial fisheries considered the greatest threats are from longline and driftnet (gillnet) fishing. Domestically, TIRN has pushed for reform toward both these fishing methods.
US Longline Fishing Reform
- A lawsuit filed by TIRN, CBD and Center for Marine Conservation led to the temporary four-year closure of Hawaii Swordfish Longline in 2000, followed by a reopening with several reforms to reduce leatherback capture. Reforms included a 2,506,526 square miles time and area closure when leatherbacks are present, a hard-cap on interactions leading to annual closure when met, limits on new permits, new hook types and bait requirements to reduce turtle hooking. The Hawaii tuna longlining fishery was modified with a 2,506,526 square miles time and area closure.
US Drift Net Fishing Reform
- In response for its failure to protect leatherback mortality in the California drift gillnet fishery, a lawsuit was filed by TIRN and CBD against the National Marine Fisheries Service.
- 2001: Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area
- In response to a 1999 lawsuit, the Leatherback Conservation Area was established to prohibit drift gillnet fishing between August 15 and November 15 along 250,000 square miles of the California and Oregon coast, reducing the number of leatherback deaths in the fishery from 112 between 1990 and 2001 to almost zero. You can view a map here.
- 2018: Phasing Out CA Drift Nets
- Due to mortality and injury to other species, including whales and dolphins, TIRN and partner organizations filed suit against the fishery leading to the 2018 State plan to phase out the fishery completely in Senate Bill 1017. A buy-back program is still underway but most fishing driftnet permits in California have been retired.
- Bipartisan federal legislation to outlaw the fishery passed the Senate and House, but was vetoed by then President Trump. TIRN expects re-passage of this legislation in 2022.
In addition to our efforts domestically, our strategy to bring Pacific leatherbacks back from the brink of extinction includes international endeavors.
Call for United Nations Moratorium on Longline Fishing
- TIRN led the call at the United Nations for a Moratorium on Longline Fishing including the placement of full page advertisements endorsed by over 1000 scientists from 97 countries and 281 conservation organizations.This led to the creation of a UN FAO Sea Turtle Action Plan and the UN Law of the Sea consultative process urging regional fisheries management organizations to adopt reforms to protect leatherbacks from incidental capture in worldwide fisheries.
Cocos-Galapagos Swimway, a concept developed and championed by Turtle Island; for more information on the swimway, you can view it here.
- Based partially on research demonstrating that the proposed swimway included a significant portion of east Pacific leatherbacks migratory route between nesting and feeding grounds, the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway was partially implemented with the passage of a new marine reserve stretching from Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands to the border with Costa Rica’s Economic Exclusive Zone.We continue to work to complete the Swimway lobbying Costa Rica to complete the Swimway as part of their proposed marine management areas now under development.
Leatherback Protecting Nesting Sites
- TIRN hired staff in Papua New Guinea to educate the populace about the international threats to leatherback sea turtles and to protect nesting beaches in that nation.
- Working with local indigenous communities, several Conservation Deeds were established. This community-driven process creates a locally managed conservation area, as well as a long-term community stake in the protection of natural resources. The first Conservation Deed was the Karkum Conservation Area in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea.
- A controversial sand mining venture on a Papua New Guinea leatherback nesting beach was abandoned following public backlash. Led by former TIRN staffer Wences Magun, a Singaporean sand mining company withdrew its application for a sand mining exploration license permit across 51 kilometers of protected habitat for endangered leatherback sea turtles. The decision followed pushback from grassroots efforts headed by Mas Kagin Tapani Association (MAKATA), an environmental nonprofit based in Papua New Guinea, who has led efforts to protect critically endangered leatherback turtles. Turtle Island is now supporting Wences’ work to legislate a ban on sand mining in Papua New Guinea.
Reducing Consumer Demand for Fish Caught in Ways that Kill Leatherbacks
- org was established by Turtle Island when it learned that seafood highest in mercury were caught by fisheries that kill the most leatherbacks. GotMercury was highly successful in informing the public of the threats of mercury in seafood, and that those fisheries also were threatening the survival of leatherbacks reducing consumption of swordfish in the US, and reducing swordfish imports into the US.
- Tested seafood throughout the US to measure mercury concentrations garnering major media attention.
- Created the GotMercury Calculator in both English and Spanish that allowed people to estimate their exposure to toxic mercury based on their seafood consumption.
- Sued California supermarkets compelling posting of signage warning of mercury in swordfish, tuna and shark (all species caught by fisheries that kill leatherbacks) in supermarkets throughout California. This led to signs being posted in supermarkets throughout the US.
As the years roll on, our efforts in saving the Pacific leatherback will continue. Our fight is heavily bolstered by your support. Consider supporting TIRN’S ongoing efforts to save the leatherback by donating. You can also show your support by staying informed of ongoing actions you can participate in by joining our network of activists.