The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest turtle in the world, may be headed for extinction according to a new study published Tuesday in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecosphere. According to the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, the leatherback weighs in at 2000 pounds and measuring 6.5 feet in length. Despite their size, however, they have just twenty years to reverse a severe population decline before their numbers become too few for species survival, according to University of Alabama professor of reproductive biology, Thane Wibbels, Ph.D.
“The leatherback is one of the most intriguing animals in nature and we are watching it head toward extinction in front of our eyes,” said Wibbels. Jamursba Medi Beach in Papua Barat, Indonesia is home to 75% of leatherback turtle nests in the western Pacific . In 1984, there were 14,455 leatherback nests at the site, today, according to the study led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, there are fewer than 500 turtles nesting at the site.
Ricardo Tapilatu, University of Alabama Ph.D. student and lead scientist of the research team that conducted the study, noted that leatherback turtles “can migrate 7000 miles and travel through the territory of 20 countries, so this is a complex international problem. It is extremely difficult to comprehensively enforce fishing throughout the Pacific.”
Wibbels added “Only one hatchling out of 1000 makes it to adulthood, so taking out an adult… is essentially the same as killing 1,000 hatchlings.”
While beach management of leatherback turtle nesting sites can help maximize the number of turtles that hatch and make it back into the ocean, the low rate of survival to adulthood means that effective efforts to prevent incidental capture of or injury to adult turtles by commercial fishing operations around the world will be required to preserve the species.
NOAA Fisheries says it has worked with the U.S. shrimp trawling industry to implement Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) and has instituted a number of regulations to help protect the leatherback from accidental capture and that importation into the U.S. of shrimp harvested by any means that adversely affects sea turtles has been prohibited since 1989. It is the western Pacific, however, where the largest populations of leatherback turtles exist, or once did, and it is the nations there that must ensure that the turtles are protected.