Read STC’s Comments on the Leatherback Status Change Petition (pdf file).
Leatherback sea turtles are ancient, giant reptiles. Named for their unique shells composed of thin rubbery skin, they can dive the deepest and travel the furthest among all seven sea turtle species on earth. Leatherbacks have traveled the globe for millions of years, but they face a number of mostly human-caused threats to their survival and recovery.
One of the greatest threats they face is being accidentally caught by commercial fishing operations. When they are caught underwater in nets or on baited lines, they drown if they can’t reach the surface for air. They can also sustain internal injuries from hooks or external injuries from entanglement, including strangulation or amputation. In October of last year, a New Jersey-based organization representing commercial fishing interests quietly introduced a federal petition to classify the Northwestern Atlantic leatherback population as a distinct population and to change the status of this population under the Endangered Species Act from “endangered” to “threatened.”
In the petition, the group states that the Northwestern Atlantic leatherback population (including leatherbacks that nest in Florida, Costa Rica, and Panama) should be listed as “threatened” because it is “not currently at risk of extinction (i.e., endangered) due to its overall population size.” But the scientific evidence submitted with the petition did not take into account data from 2014 and forward that disputes this claim.
In Florida, leatherback nesting has decreased from 650 to just 200 nests since 2014, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In addition, over the last two decades, STC has documented a severe decline in leatherback nesting at Tortuguero, Costa Rica (see Figure 1). Furthermore, the nesting trend for this species at Chiriqui Beach, Panama, which had shown positive growth over a decade ago, actually shows a slight decline since 2005.
The future of leatherback sea turtles is also at risk due to climate change and global warming. Following a global trend, south Florida sea turtle hatchlings are becoming increasingly female due to warmer-than-average sand temperatures. Hot sand is also causing turtle embryos to overheat in their nests at STC’s research sites in Panama, reducing the hatching success rate to less than 20 percent in many areas monitored by STC.
If this population of leatherback sea turtles is downgraded to “threatened,” STC worries that commercial fisheries and other industries will take less care in reducing incidental “take,” or the accidental killing of leatherback sea turtles, and federal authorities will be less focused on the urgency with which this species needs protection.
NOAA is accepting public comment on this petition. STC will be making formal comments based on our own scientific data; however, anyone interested in sharing their opinion on the topic may do so online by visiting this site: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=NOAA-NMFS-2017-0147-0001. We hope STC members will ask the federal government to reject this petition and keep leatherback sea turtles listed as “endangered” so they benefit from full protection under the Endangered Species Act.