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Recovery Strategy for the Leatherback Turtle

2.0 Background

2.1 Current Canadian Status 

Common name: Leatherback turtle

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea

Status: Endangered

Reason for designation: The leatherback turtle is undergoing a severe global decline (> 70 % in 15 years).  In Canadian waters, incidental capture in fishing gear is a major cause of mortality. A long lifespan, very high rates of egg and hatchling mortality, and a late age of maturity makes this species unusually vulnerable to even small increases in rates of mortality of adults and older juveniles (COSEWIC, 2003)

Occurrence: Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean

Status history: Designated Endangered in April 1981. Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2001.

  This statement of designation is from the report produced by COSEWIC following assessment of leatherback turtles in both Atlantic and Pacific Canadian waters.  It bears noting that incidental catch of individuals in fishing gear is the most well documented source of anthropogenic mortality to leatherback turtles in Canada, however other sources of mortality both within and outside Canadian territorial waters have contributed to overall population declines.  Threats to leatherback turtles are further elaborated on under section 2.7.

2.2 Global Status History

 The leatherback turtle is currently both nationally endangered (Cook, 1981; COSEWIC 2001) and globally critically endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).  It has been listed as endangered throughout its range since 1970 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) .

2.3 Legal Protection

2.3.1 Canada

Leatherback turtles are listed under Schedule 1, Part 2 of SARA and therefore, its provisions against the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking of individuals applies directly to this species.  Once identified prohibitions will also be in place against the destruction of the species’ critical habitat, where critical habitat is defined under Section 2 of the Act as “the habitat necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species and that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan”.  As is the case with many marine species, our knowledge of what comprises critical habitat for leatherback turtles in Canadian waters is incomplete.

In addition to SARA, other federal statutes that offer legal protection for leatherbacks and their habitat in Canada include the Habitat Protection provisions of the Fisheries Act (1985) and the Oceans Act (1996), which gives DFO authority to create Marine Protected Areas to protect endangered and threatened species.  The leatherback is also protected under the 1996 New Brunswick Endangered Species Act.  However, as a migratory marine species, the leatherback turtle is ultimately under federal jurisdictional responsibility.

2.3.2 Globally

Globally, the leatherback turtle receives protection under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).  For countries that are signatories to the Convention, including Canada, CITES is an international agreement whose goal is to ensure that international trade in products derived from wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild.  Leatherback turtles were listed in Appendix I under CITES in 1990, which permits trade only under exceptional circumstances.

Leatherbacks utilize nesting beaches and waters that are shared by many nations.  The Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IACPST) is the only international treaty dedicated exclusively to sea turtles, setting international standards for the conservation of protected sea turtles and their habitats.  Canada is not a signatory party to this convention.  Further, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) has some provisions that address the harvest of endangered species.

International cooperation will be the key to effective protection of this animal.  The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) has recently selected the Leatherback turtle as a pilot species for the development of a North American Conservation Action Plan.  The CEC is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States to address regional environmental concerns, help prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts, and to promote the effective enforcement of environmental law.  It is hoped that the Canadian Recovery Strategy will contribute to this Conservation Action Plan.