NOAA Fisheries

World - Time is running out for embattled Pacific leatherback sea turtles

Marine biologists warn that the western Pacific leatherback could go extinct without immediate conservation measures and transnational cooperation.

Clear-skied, low-wind summer days are rare off the coast of California. But they’re a blessing if you’re a researcher tracking down critically endangered leatherback sea turtles.

Marine ecologists Scott Benson and Karin Forney, with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, spent many of those days tag-teaming a decades-long research effort to collect data on one of the world’s oldest and largest marine reptiles. Forney sits in the clear belly of a NOAA surveying plane, scanning the dark waters like a hawk, notifying the team when she spots a leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Benson, her husband, is among the scientists on the boat below, prepped at the hull with a large net, anticipating the moment they can heave the prehistoric giant on board.

Then comes the sampling: blood tests, tissue samples, attaching transmitters, recording weight. It’s an hour-long ordeal, Benson says, and “an all-consuming task.” In a month and a half, the team gets maybe five good-weather opportunities to collect data on this massive but little-understood species. And it could be their last chance to save this population.

The western Pacific leatherback sea turtle is at high risk of extinction, according to a study published in Global Ecology and Conservation. The researchers, including lead author Benson and co-author Forney, used roughly three decades of data to assess the population’s status. Combining their observations of foraging turtles in California with data on nesting patterns in Indonesia, the researchers estimate the population has declined at a rate of 5.6% annually, suffering an overall 80% decline from 1990 to 2017.

Both on land and at sea, the turtles face a series of existential threats in the Pacific. The situation is so dire that scientists on both sides of the ocean have dedicated their lives to reeling the distinct populations back from a dangerous tipping point.

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