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Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in Pacific Canadian Waters

Executive Summary

A genetically distinct, nationally significant population of the leatherback turtle occurs seasonally off coastal British Columbia (B.C.). This large, highly migratory reptile makes foraging migrations from nesting sites in the Western and Eastern Pacific. It is threatened with extinction by a long list of factors, including accidental capture, nesting beach habitat loss, killing of nesting females and harvest of eggs. While many of the threats are not present along the Pacific coast of Canada, the fact that leatherback recovery will only occur as the result of a concerted international effort means that a Canadian recovery strategy cannot ignore threats that occur outside Canadian waters.

Off the coast of B.C., the major threats are probably accidental capture and entanglement, collision with boats and ingestion of debris, although a critical lack of information on basic turtle biology and sightings makes it very difficult to assign risk to any particular threat. Within the leatherback's Pacific Canadian range, the main knowledge gaps concern the animal's occurrence, distribution, behaviour and interaction with fishing gear. This lack of information presently makes it impossible to identify critical habitat in Pacific Canadian waters, which will in any event move with the animal's food supply.

The Recovery Strategy recommends opportunities for immediate action as well as the urgent need for more research, and places both in the context of international cooperation. The goal of the Strategy is the long-term viability of the leatherback turtle population(s) that frequent Pacific Canadian waters. The goal will be reached through five objectives aimed at filling knowledge gaps through stand-alone Canadian research and through Canadian contribution to research efforts in other countries; summarizing what we know of the occurrence of leatherbacks off coastal B.C. and their interactions with people; mitigating threats throughout the leatherback's range; and creating the public and professional awareness needed for recovery. The objectives are designed to take advantage of Canadian expertise not only in the Canadian part of the leatherback's range but also in the remainder of the species' nesting, rearing and foraging habitat. Canada has a role both at home and abroad for the recovery of this species.

Until the population biology and status of leatherbacks that frequent Pacific Canadian waters are known it is difficult to predict the likelihood of a return to viability. The species' capacity to rebound is influenced by its lifetime reproductive capacity, which is unknown. Availability of quality foraging habitat off coastal B.C. does not appear to be limiting, and Canadian capability for alleviating the main threats in our waters is high. However, the fate of the Pacific leatherback turtle rests on much more than its transient life in Canadian waters, and this Strategy stresses the need to take advantage of international conventions and to collaborate with governments, research organizations and civil society throughout the leatherback's range.