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Recovery Strategy for the Leatherback Turtle

6.0 Actions Completed Or Underway 

Many recovery efforts to date have been initiated by the Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group (NSLTWG) with financial support from the Government of Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP).  The NSLTWG is a collaborative marine turtle research and conservation initiative involving volunteer commercial fishers, tour boat operators, naturalists, coastal community members, and university-affiliated scientists in Atlantic Canada.

Since 1997, the NSLTWG and its many fisher representatives have worked with coastal community members in Nova Scotia to increase public awareness of marine turtle biology and conservation issues, and to study the biology of marine turtles in the North Atlantic.  The group has been successful in contributing new information that is crucial to the conservation of these species.  Sighting data collected by fisher-members of the Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group as well as data summarized in McAlpine et al. (2004), revealed that eastern Canadian waters are within the regular range of large numbers of leatherbacks.  In addition, NSLTWG fishers remain committed to effecting practical conservation for the leatherback at sea, particularly through their efforts to disentangle accidentally entrapped turtles.

Further recovery efforts by fishers include extensive work conducted by the Canadian large pelagic longline industry during the 2001 and 2002 fishing seasons.  By 2002, the scope of the project included the entire Canadian large pelagic longline industry (swordfish, tuna and shark fleets).  Through funding from the Habitat Stewardship Program, these groups (Atlantic Shark Association in 2002, IVY Fisheries Ltd. in 2002 and the Nova Scotia Swordfishermen's Association in 2001 and 2002) have been investigating the potential for and nature of interactions between pelagic longline gear and leatherback turtles.  Observers collected data to document (1) gear configuration parameters and their rates of interactions with leatherback turtles, (2) current release methods, (3) whether or not all gear was removed upon release, (4) the number, species and size of turtles captured and, (5) spatial and temporal distribution of interactions.  This has led to a better understanding of the distribution of the leatherback turtle in Canadian waters, the nature of any interactions with pelagic longline gear, and release methods in practice.

Since 1995, a large portion of the swordfish longline fleet have used circle hooks,which reduce bycatch and maximize the chances of leatherback turtle survival.  This gear is configured to allow turtles to stay at the surface until they are released.  In addition, the gear uses primarily circle hooks to decrease the chances of hooking the turtles.  These methods are currently being adopted by other international pelagic longline fleets to prevent sea turtle bycatch.  In 2003-2004, the Nova Scotia Swordfishermen’s Association, with funding from the Habitat Stewardship Program, assessed the effectiveness of new de-hooking kits for releasing turtles in a humane manner.

In addition to efforts by fishers, Dalhousie University has conducted research to study leatherback turtles using satellite-linked time-data recorders (SLTDRs) since 2000.  This multi-year project has tracked leatherback turtles to gain information about migration and feeding (diving and foraging) behaviour.  Dalhousie researchers and fisher members of the NSLTWG, led by Mike James, have been able to live-capture free-swimming leatherback turtles and attach the SLTDRs using a harness fitted to the animal.  In September 1999, the Dalhousie - NSLTWG project became the first in the world to satellite-tag a leatherback turtle at sea, and the first to ever satellite-tag a male leatherback.

During 2000-01, DFO provided Species at Risk programme funding through a joint agreement with Dalhousie University to assist in the purchase of satellite transmitter tags.  Preliminary results from this work have revealed coastal and offshore foraging  movements (characterized by shallow dives of short duration) in Canadian and U.S. waters, with extensive feeding in slope waters east of the Fundian Channel and George’s Bank.  Residency time in Canadian waters has varied considerably as some animals depart soon after tagging while others remain foraging in Canadian waters for three to four months.  Tagged leatherback turtles have migrated to Caribbean waters adjacent to nesting sites, to pelagic waters at low latitude, and to shelf waters off the southeastern United States.  Data collected through this ongoing research will assist in evaluating the vulnerability of this species to human activities occurring in Canadian waters and throughout its north Atlantic range.

In an effort to mitigate potential threats posed by commercial fishing gear, a marine animal disentanglement and stranding programme was established in Newfoundland through funding provided under the Government of Canada’s  Habitat Stewardship Programme.  It was established to mitigate impacts of inshore fisheries on leatherback turtles as well as to promote sea turtle conservation through outreach and education.

Beginning in 2003, a multifaceted research programme (portions of which are a cooperative with Memorial University) has been supported by DFO’s Species at Risk funds.  Studies are underway to address issues such as distribution and abundance of leatherbacks (aerial surveys in 2002 and 2003), proximate composition and distribution of jellyfish in the Region, amalgamation of historic and current turtle sightings, interview studies to investigate distribution and sources of mortality, and support and contribute to public education programmes through the Department and with provincial and international NGOs.

There are a variety of actions that other countries are taking to recover the leatherback turtle and these activities will be outlined more fully in the action plan.