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Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Turtles


This Recovery Strategy concerns an animal many Canadians may never have heard of, but all will find extraordinary. What little is known about the leatherback turtle offers tantalizing glimpses into a remarkable physiology and life history.  The adult leatherback is not only the most migratory of all sea turtles but also the largest and widest ranging reptile, capable of annual journeys of more than 15,000 km. From an evolutionary perspective, the leatherback turtle is unique among extant turtles and the sole surviving representative of the family Dermochelyidae, thought to be at least 100 million years old.

Genetically distinct Pacific and Atlantic stocks of leatherbacks make extensive feeding migrations to Canadian coastal waters from nesting beaches and rearing areas in tropical seas. The species’ occurrence in Canadian waters and its increasing global rarity demand aggressive conservation measures that involve not only actions in Canada but also the participation of Canadians in international programs and projects. This Recovery Strategy for the Leatherback Turtle in Pacific Canadian Waters complements one being developed for leatherback turtles in Atlantic Canadian waters.

Adult Pacific leatherbacks are often seen foraging off the coast of B.C. between July and September. Although sightings are not frequent, a database presently being compiled by Fisheries and Oceans Canada shows the animals to range along the entire B.C. coast, including inshore waters.  The collapse of the Pacific stock means that the accidental removal of even a few adults may slow or jeopardize recovery of the species.

This National Recovery Strategy is a legal requirement under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The SARA came into force on June 5, 2003.  The purposes of the Act are:

“… to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of a wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.” 

Leatherback turtles are listed as Endangered under Schedule I of SARA which results in legal protection and mandatory recovery requirements.  Protection under the Act prohibits killing, harming and harassing of individuals and also prohibits the damaging or destroying of their residence and protection for critical habitat (once identified in a recovery strategy and/or action plan).  The Minister of Fisheries & Oceans, as a “competent minister” under SARA for leatherback turtles, is responsible the development of “recovery strategies” and “action plans” for each of the listed species under the Act.

The Recovery Strategy summarizes what is known of the biology and status of the Pacific leatherback turtle, and reflects not only our limited knowledge about this animal but also the need for international cooperation in its recovery.  The Strategy is accompanied by the Action Plan, also a requirement under the Act. The Action Plan lists the measures that are to be taken over the next 5 years to implement the Recovery Strategy. Fortunately, Canadians have a great deal to contribute to recovery activities, ranging from participation of coastal British Columbians in surveys and industry-specific measures to contributions to international research and policy efforts.