When Oceana first began its work to protect critically endangered Pacific leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast, we had no idea that these prehistoric turtles would eventually provide a global link to connect us to conservationists half way across the planet.
Pacific leatherbacks need our help more than ever. Despite being listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1970 their population is currently declining at 6% per year. If this trend continues we could lose these magnificent turtles in 20 years.
We’re already gearing up for this year’s first official Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day on October 15! When Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1776 into law last year, he declared an official celebratory day for the Pacific leatherback sea turtle and made it the state’s marine reptile, in order to increase awareness and conservation of this endangered species. With the support of the state of California, we are working with state and federal agencies and other conservation organizations here and abroad to facilitate an official California-Indonesia leatherback partnership to better protect this amazing sea turtle at every stage of its lifecycle, from hatchling to adult.
An endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims through the cold, nutrient-rich waters off California where it has made an impressive journey from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. But, it encounters an unwelcome surprise, a mile long drift net in which its flipper becomes entangled.
Because this net sits overnight in the water column to catch its targeted commercial species, swordfish and thresher sharks, this net will not be pulled up until the following morning. In the meantime, the sea turtle is unable to surface for air and drowns. The drift gillnet fishery takes, on average, 138 marine mammals per year including sperm whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions—not to mention thousands of sharks and other fish. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured.
Due to concerns over bycatch resulting from the use of drift gillnets, Washington and Oregon have prohibited fishermen in their state from using these destructive nets off their coast. This leaves California as the only west coast state still allowing this deadly gear.
As 2013 rapidly approaches, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the past year at Oceana. Thanks to your support, we were able to achieve more than a dozen major victories for the oceans! You signed petitions to lawmakers and companies, submitted seafood samples and participated in rallies and events, and it made a difference. Here are five of the major victories we won in 2012 as a result:
1. Alibaba.com stops selling manta ray products
When Oceana discovered that the online international marketplace Alibaba.com was selling manta ray products, we asked for your help in stopping it. Nearly 40,000 of you responded by signing our petition, and Alibaba listened, removing manta ray leather products from the website.
2. Victories for the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle
2012 was a good year for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles. We helped establish the first permanent safe haven for leatherbacks in continental U.S. waters this year. The government designated nearly 42,000 square miles of critical habitat off the West Coast. The Pacific leatherback was also designated as California’s official state reptile following a bill sponsored and supported by Oceana with the support of thousands of California citizens and more than 30 conservation groups.
It's been a leatherback-heavy news week and for all the right reasons. First a dramatic leatherback sea turtle rescue off of Cape Cod grabbed headlines over the weekend and then yesterday California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill designating the Pacific leatherback as the state's marine reptile.
The law designates October 15, 2013 as the first annual Leatherback Conservation Day, during which California schools will be encouraged to teach students about this prehistoric sea turtle species, which makes a heroic 6,000 mile journey from Indonesia to the California coast to feed on jellyfish. The species, which is the largest turtle on Earth, has been decimated in recent decades, its population numbers plummeting as much as 95% due to bycatch by industrial fishing drift nets and longlines, poaching and plastic pollution (leatherbacks often mistake plastic bags for their favorite prey, jellyfish).
“By recognizing the Pacific leatherback as the newest state symbol, Governor Brown continues California’s leadership in ocean conservation,” said Ashley Blacow, Oceana’s Pacific Policy and Communications Coordinator. “Pacific leatherbacks are on the brink of extinction, and public awareness is a key ingredient to turning the tide for these ancient marine reptiles.”
Help Oceana make everyday Leatherback Conservation Day!
Ordinances to ban single-use plastic bags are picking up steam here in California. A growing list of cities and counties in the state are taking action to get rid of this frequent source of pollution, which trashes our beautiful rivers and beaches and causes undue harm to wildlife.
Did you know that 19 billion plastic grocery bags are distributed in California each year, many of which end up as litter?
When plastic enters marine waters, it continually breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that absorb toxic chemicals. Chemical laden plastic pieces are then ingested by wildlife and enter the food chain that we depend upon. In addition, animals can inadvertently ingest or choke on plastic bags. Over 267 species of marine wildlife have been affected by plastic bag litter.
One species in particular is the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The largest of all sea turtles, the leatherback swims an incredible 6,000 miles from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to California waters to feed on jellyfish. These prehistoric turtles easily mistake plastic bags swirling in the water for jellies and once ingested the turtles suffer dire consequences like malnutrition, starvation, intestinal blockage, suffocation, and drowning. One study found that one third of Pacific leatherbacks autopsied had plastic in their gastrointestinal tract.
Good thing we have alternatives to plastic bags like re-useable cloth bags, some of which you can even wash after a few visits to the grocery or department store. Re-useable bags also come in handy for other errands and outings like the local farmers market or an afternoon at the beach.
To date, 19 cities and 6 counties in California either have adopted or fully implemented plastic bag bans. Another 44 cities and 6 counties are in process of considering such a ban. The California Supreme Court also recently ruled that expensive Environmental Impact Reports are not required for cities to implement these bans, making it much easier to take action. This map shows cities and counties moving forward to ban plastic bags to date in California. We're asking our Californian supporters to help us fill in the map and ask your local city council to consider banning single-use plastic bags in your area.
And whether or not your hometown has jumped on board with these bans, you can do your part to reduce plastic trash. Take a pledge today to use less plastic, and help keep the oceans a little cleaner.
More good news for sea turtles today: The endangered leatherback sea turtle swam one lap closer today to becoming California’s official marine reptile.
The California Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife voted unanimously today that this ocean ambassador should be an additional state symbol. This is exciting news as the bill heads next to the Assembly floor where all 80 Assemblymembers will vote to determine if the bill moves to the state Senate.
Leatherbacks are truly an impressive species and an important part of the marine ecosystem. Once they reach maturity, leatherback sea turtles swim over 6,000 miles from their nesting beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands to waters off California’s coast to feed on jellyfish.
California waters are a globally important foraging area for leatherbacks and these endangered species are an ecologically important part of the marine ecosystem. In recognition of new scientific information demonstrating the importance of California waters to the survival of Pacific leatherbacks, the National Marine Fisheries Service recently designated nearly 42,000 square miles off the US West Coast as critical habitat, including 16,910 square miles off California’s coast.
Oceana co-authored the petition and weighed in heavily during this 5 year process leading to the final designation to help ensure ensure these awe-inspiring animals are not wiped out by human impacts to their key feeding areas.
Thank you to all of you California Wavemakers who signed the letter of support to your local representative letting them know your support for this legislation. This is truly a time to celebrate the leatherback.
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest species of marine turtle and the only one to lack a hard shell made of scales.
Instead, these gentle giants have a softer shell made of bone and skin with seven ridges along their backs. Also unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks do not have claws on their front flippers.
Even more unusual is that leatherbacks, unlike most reptiles, have some control over their body temperatures, making them warm-blooded. They have a thick layer of fat under their skin and a special blood supply system in their shoulders that can keep them warmer than the water around them, which means they can live both further away from the tropics and in deeper waters than other sea turtles.
Leatherback sea turtles eat mostly jellyfish, and are equipped with special spikes in their throats to keep the slimy creatures from escaping. Their jellyfish-heavy diet probably contributes to reports of leatherback turtle flesh sometimes being toxic to humans.
Like other sea turtles, leatherback turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches, however, about 20% are “vanos,” or small, yolkless eggs that will never hatch. All the eggs in a clutch are either masculine or feminine—do you know what determines the gender of the eggs? It’s this week’s trivia question on Twitter, so if you live in the US answer now for your chance to win!
Leatherback sea turtles are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. Threats include being entangled in fishing gear; human collection of eggs and hunting of adult turtles for meat and shell; ingestion of plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish; and the effects of climate change on nesting behavior and success. Atlantic populations are considered slightly healthier than Pacific populations, which have seen several important collapses since scientists began tracking sea turtles.
Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe.
You can learn more about leatherback sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.