Today marks the inaugural observance of Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day in California. The annual celebration was created by the State of California in 2013 in an effort to raise awareness about the conservation of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, which was named California's official state marine reptile in 2012.
Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles in existence, growing to more than 6 feet in length and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds. They also travel the greatest distances, regularly crossing entire ocean basins between feeding and breeding areas. The longest recorded leatherback migration was 12,744 miles, from Papua, Indonesia to Oregon, USA. All of this is even more incredible when considering that leatherbacks feed almost exclusively on jellyfish.
Leatherback turtles are also among the most threatened marine species, listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Of all global sub-populations of leatherback turtles (there are 7), the two that occur in the Pacific Ocean are considered to be the most threatened. The major threats to leatherback turtles are fisheries bycatch (when a turtle is captured in fishing gear), consumption of leatherback eggs and adult turtles, habitat loss caused by coastal development, and plastic pollution (a recent review of leatherback strandings found plastic had been consumed by more than 30% of all necropsied turtles).
Many people are surprised to learn that leatherback turtles are found in California. In fact, the coast of California is the major feeding ground for leatherback turtles that are born on beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and other areas of the Western Pacific. These amazing reptiles regularly migrate thousands of miles between their feeding grounds off of California and their reproductive areas around Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and other areas of the Western Pacific. The map at right shows some of the many recorded migrations of leatherback turtles in the Pacific.
During the months of October and November, we are fortunate to occasionally observe leatherback turtles feeding on jellyfish during our nature cruises to the Farallon Islands.
Because of the prevalence of leatherback turtles in California, and due to lack of awareness about their presence and threatened status, the State of California and CA-based non-profit organizations like Sea Turtle Restoration Project, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Foundation, and Oceanic Society are excited to celebrate the first annual Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day.
Please join us in spreading the word about these amazing animals, and learn more about Oceanic Society's leatherback conservation programs at the following links:
Brian Hutchinson is Oceanic Society's vice president of outreach, co-founder of the State of the World's Sea Turtles Program, and program officer of the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. Brian holds a B.A. in zoology from Connecticut College, and has been working to advance global marine conservation for more than a decade.