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Recovery Strategy for the Leatherback Turtle

Executive summary

The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is a marine reptile that has experienced precipitous declines in recent years.  Global population estimates of nesting females suggest that leatherbacks have declined by 70% from 1980 to 1995.  It is currently listed as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).  This recovery strategy deals with the Atlantic component of this species: the Atlantic Leatherback turtle.

Atlantic leatherbacks are highly migratory and a portion of the population makes seasonal migrations from rookeries in the Caribbean and South America to northern latitudes in waters off eastern Canada.  These animals appear to mainly use northern waters to forage during the summer and fall, before assuming southward migration.  Several factors, or threats, are contributing to the decline of leatherbacks throughout their range.  Many of the most serious threats do not occur within Canadian jurisdiction and; therefore, recovery of this species will require international cooperation.

While little is known about human activities in Atlantic Canadian waters that may impact leatherback turtles, potential threats contributing to mortality include entanglement in commercial fishing gear, vessel collision from recreational boating, ship traffic, marine pollution, and oil and gas exploration and development.  The difficulty in addressing these threats stems from the general lack of information on the species’ biology, distribution, life history and behaviour in addition to the lack of knowledge on the threats themselves.  Further, how much any mitigation measure will contribute to the likelihood of recovery is unknown.

The recovery strategy specifies measures that can be taken under Canadian jurisdiction to promote the recovery of the Atlantic leatherback turtle.  The recovery goal is to “achieve the long-term viability of the leatherback turtle populations frequenting Atlantic Canadian waters”.  The supporting objectives outline the need to: (1) understand the threats to leatherbacks in Atlantic Canadian waters, (2) acquire further information to improve the general knowledge of the species and its habitat, (3) take further steps to identify critical habitat so that it may be protected, (4) reduce the risk of harm to leatherback turtles from anthropogenic activities, (5) educate stakeholders and the general public on ways to support recovery, and (6) work collaboratively at an international level to further recovery.

A key challenge in the recovery of the Atlantic leatherback turtle is a general scarcity of information regarding the species’ biology, distribution, habitat preferences and threats to the populations.  In addition, the international nature of this species makes recovery efforts more complex.  As further information is collected and international efforts move forward, the potential for recovery of the Atlantic leatherback turtle will be enhanced.