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Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Turtles

3. Recovery

 It is important to realize that, because of the lack of information on leatherbacks in Pacific Canadian waters, recovery of this species will initially follow a staged and adaptive approach.  Mitigation, for example, will have to be tailored to our emerging understanding of threats.  Hence it is unrealistic at the outset to expect all recovery objectives to have measurable outputs; instead, these will emerge as research proceeds.

Recovery objectives are currently focused on obtaining fundamental baseline information on the basic biology and distribution of this species in Pacific Canadian waters, and the threats it faces.  As this information becomes available, the Recovery Strategy will be updated with specific measurable recovery objectives, within five years.  Furthermore, because leatherback turtles in Pacific Canadian waters are likely from the same genetic stocks as those in Pacific U.S. waters, Canada will consider making its measurable recovery objectives consistent with the Recovery Criteria outlined in the Recovery Plan for U.S. Pacific Populations of the Leatherback Turtle (NMFS and FWS 1998 and future revisions; see Objective 1 below). 

3.1 Recovery goal

The goal of this Recovery Strategy is the long-term viability of the leatherback turtle population(s) that frequent Pacific Canadian waters. 

3.2 Recovery objectives

The goal of this Recovery Strategy will be reached through five objectives.  Objective 1 is to fill knowledge gaps through stand-alone Canadian research and through Canadian contribution to research efforts in other countries.  Objective 2 is to summarize what we know of the occurrence of leatherbacks off coastal B.C. and their interactions with people. Objective 3 is to mitigate threats in B.C. waters, while Objective 4 promotes mitigation in all the other parts of the leatherback’s range.  The fifth objective is aimed at creating the public and professional awareness needed for recovery.

Canadians have expertise that will be invaluable not only in the part of the leatherback’s range that happens to be in Canada, but also in those parts that are “overseas” for Canadians.  Hence there is some overlap in activities, because stewardship for an animal that migrates 15,000 km clearly knows no international boundaries.

The five objectives are:

Objective 1: Conduct and support research that makes possible the development of measurable recovery criteria, within five years, for leatherback turtle population(s) that frequent Pacific Canadian waters

Objective 2: Identify and understand threats to the leatherback turtle and its habitat resulting from human activities in Pacific Canadian waters

Objective 3: Mitigate human-caused threats to leatherback turtles in Pacific Canadian waters and protect their critical migratory and foraging habitats

Objective 4: Support the efforts of other countries to promote the recovery of the leatherback turtle population(s) that frequent Pacific Canadian waters

Objective 5: Raise awareness of Pacific leatherbacks and engage Canadians in stewardship projects

3.3 Strategies to achieve recovery

Objective 1: Research  

Conduct and support research that makes possible the development of measurable recovery objectives, within five years, for leatherback turtle population(s) that frequent Pacific Canadian waters.


  1. Conduct research in Canada to identify critical habitat important to the recovery of leatherbacks in Pacific waters;
  2. Contribute to and collaborate in projects to identify population(s) of leatherbacks that are found in Pacific Canadian waters and distinguish them from other Pacific populations;
  3. Contribute to projects on basic demographic parameters for leatherbacks in order to predict the effectiveness of actions to promote recovery;
  4. Contribute to projects on the basic biology, physiology and behaviour of the Pacific leatherback turtle.

Objective 2: Threat clarification

 Identify and understand threats to the leatherback turtle and its habitat resulting from human activities in Pacific Canadian waters.  


  1. Synthesize existing data on activities that potentially harm leatherbacks that frequent Pacific Canadian waters;
  2. Implement programs to collect information on leatherback turtle sightings in Pacific Canadian waters;

Objective 3: Mitigation  

Mitigate human-caused threats to leatherback turtles in Pacific Canadian waters and protect their critical migratory and foraging habitats.

The following strategies are broad, as their further development depends closely on currently unidentified threats.  As information from Objective 1 becomes available, the Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Turtles in Pacific Canadian waters will be updated to provide more specific strategies and associated actions under Objective 2, with measurable outputs.  The Recovery Team believes that leatherback-fishing encounters in Pacific Canadian waters are infrequent and do not presently justify fisheries restrictions. Recovery of the leatherback turtle is more likely to be aided by the kinds of activities described below, including working collaboratively with the maritime industry and general public to gather much-needed data on sightings and interactions with humans in Canada and facilitating international research and conservation efforts that target the nesting beaches. 

At present, the broad strategies include, but may not be limited to:

  1. In consultation with the maritime industry, implement mitigation measures to reduce threats to leatherback turtles in Pacific Canadian waters once they are better understood (threats as identified through programs implemented under Objective 2);
  2. Once identified, protect the critical habitats of leatherback turtles in Pacific Canadian waters (see Objective 1 for determination of critical habitat);
  3. Develop and implement recovery procedures for strandings and/or entanglements, and, as appropriate, other emergency planning and response procedures (e.g. regarding oil spills).

 Objective 4: International cooperation  

 Support the efforts of other countries to promote the recovery of the leatherback turtle population that frequent Pacific Canadian waters.


  1. Ratify, respect and/or contribute to international instruments (conventions, treaties, memoranda of understanding, codes of conduct) that promote leatherback protection and recovery;
  2. Initiate agreements and collaborative projects with countries that share populations of leatherbacks that frequent Pacific Canadian waters;
  3. Make use of existing bilateral and multilateral donor programs such as CIDA and IDRC to support collaborative research, training and awareness, including community participation in leatherback recovery;
  4. Provide Canadian expertise and other support to protect nesting leatherbacks, their eggs, and nesting beaches (e.g., public education, law enforcement, monitoring of coastal construction, alteration/reduction of artificial lighting, measures to improve hatching success);
  5. Facilitate participation of Canadians (government, academia, industry and NGOs) in international research and recovery programs (e.g. through letters of reference, permits, visas, internships, secondments).

Objective 5: Stewardship and awareness

 Raise awareness of Pacific leatherbacks and engage Canadians in stewardship activities that support leatherback turtle recovery in Canada.


  1. Develop a public awareness campaign on the leatherback turtle that covers identification, life-cycle and biology, threats, Canadian recovery efforts, and what individuals can do to minimize threats at home and abroad;
  2. Promote professional awareness of Pacific leatherback issues in government departments;
  3. Facilitate participation of Canadians in stewardship projects throughout the leatherback’s Pacific range.

3.4 Considerations for recovery

3.4.1 Recovery Feasibility

This recovery strategy takes a precautionary approach and suggests that recovery for the Pacific leatherback turtle is feasible in the absence of information that would prove otherwise.

The Pacific leatherback turtle ranges widely, and its recovery demands an international effort. The ecological and technical feasibility of recovery may be high, but will not be realized without international cooperation.  This plan complements one for the recovery of Atlantic leatherbacks in Canadian waters (Draft National Recovery Strategy for the Leatherback Turtle in Atlantic Canadian Waters, 2003), as well as existing plans for populations of Pacific leatherbacks in U.S. waters (National Marine Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service 1998).  Because of the knowledge gaps around the leatherback and its migrations and populations structure, the present plan contains a significant research component.

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 depends on its lifetime reproductive capacity, which is not known.    Availability of quality foraging habitat off coastal B.C. does not appear to be limiting, and Canadian capability for alleviating the major known threats in our waters is high.  However, progress will require a correspondingly high level of effort because of the amount of fact-finding and research required, and the need to collaborate with governments and organizations in other parts of the leatherback’s range.

As has already been stated in this Plan, the fate of the Pacific leatherback turtle rests on much more than its transient life in B.C. waters.  The main barriers to alleviating problems in B.C. waters are (1) lack of knowledge and (2) the political and social will to create and enforce new regulations.  Fishing regulations in particular need to be developed cooperatively with the industry.  Barriers to global success are political and social, and reflect the difficulty of getting all players to agree to the same measures.  For example, pelagic longline fishing is accepted as a major threat, but restrictions adopted by one fishing nation may be ineffective if other nations do not follow suit, so that well-intentioned efforts in one geographic area may be negated elsewhere. Collection of eggs on nesting beaches is another example, and people are unlikely to give up a source of food and income unless they are consulted, motivated and, policed.

It is not presently possible to state quantitatively whether implementing recovery efforts under this strategy will lead to recovery of leatherback turtles.  Implementation of the recommendations contained herein will provide population biologists with the information required to more clearly understand recovery feasibility of leatherback turtles in the Pacific region.    

3.4.2 Recommended approach/scale for recovery

The two most obvious global threats to Pacific leatherbacks are mortality in fishing gear and egg collection and mortality on nesting beaches.  Overlying both is a vast knowledge gap about the biology of an internationally pelagic species.  Hence while some immediate recovery actions are possible (and, given the right social and political climate, can be very effective), the call for “more research” cannot be ignored.  The strategy recommended here reflects the opportunities of immediate action as well as the urgent need for more research, and places both in the context of international cooperation. Canada has a role both at home and abroad for the recovery of this species.

Conservation activities in the rest of the leatherback’s range are likely to benefit other species of sea turtles as well.  There is also an excellent opportunity to link leatherback recovery actions in B.C. with those for cetaceans, especially in the development of networks for reporting sightings and for observers on fishing vessels.

 3.5 Actions completed or underway

3.5.1 Actions in PacificCanada

Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 

The Recovery Team was formed in 2002 and, in addition to producing the present Strategy and its associated Action Plan, will continue to monitor and coordinate Pacific leatherback turtle recovery programs.  The team, which is coordinated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, includes representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the University of British Columbia, Dalhousie University, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, World Fisheries Trust, the Canadian commercial fisheries sector, Hubbs Seaworld Research Institute, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the University of Alaska.

Sightings data collection and management 

To obtain information on leatherback turtle distribution, abundance and potential threats in Pacific Canadian waters, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre are developing a sightings reporting network for Pacific leatherback turtles.  Leatherback turtle sightings information will be linked with the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network (begun 1999) and includes collaboration with the public, industry and local organizations.  In 2002, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre began compiling historical sightings and developing a database to store both historical and new sightings ($25K). 

Education and outreach 

As part of a 2002 Habitat Stewardship project the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre has implemented awareness and stewardship programs on the Pacific leatherback turtle.  Web-based publishing and interpretive displays, including an animated computer game, have been developed onsite at the Vancouver Aquarium and as travelling exhibits, to communicate information on biology, behaviour, physiology and threats.  Interactive presentations conducted at schools and festivals in six coastal communities of western Vancouver Island raise awareness of the presence of leatherbacks, their threats and the positive conservation efforts communities can involve themselves in.  A toll-free sightings phone number has also been established and promoted through the distribution of posters and stickers to increase the number of reported sightings of leatherbacks ($45K).

Research on biology and behaviour 

Researchers at the University of British Columbia will use funding from NSERC and NMFS to study energetics and behaviour of gravid females nesting in the East Pacific.  Estimating energy requirements is a necessary first step in any attempt to determine the effects of changes in prey distribution and abundance on leatherback turtles.  Weighing and body condition assessment will be performed on 8 turtles for field energetic measurements.  These animals will also be instrumented with data loggers to monitor diving and foraging behaviour.  Dive profiles will provide an idea of how much time is spent submerged and to what depths. Swim velocity measurements will tell how much time at sea is spent swimming or resting. By monitoring stomach temperature, food ingestion will be determined and the proportion of time spent foraging indirectly estimated.

3.5.2 Actions in AtlanticCanada

A Recovery Plan for the Atlantic leatherback turtle is under development by DFO.  A research program on the Atlantic leatherback turtle was begun in 1998 at Dalhousie University (James 2001).  The program has studied threats in Atlantic Canada, including the kind and incidence of fisheries interactions and ingestion of plastics, and includes satellite telemetry studies to track turtle movements.  Other research, management and awareness initiatives in Atlantic Canada include:

  • quantification of incidental capture in any Canadian pelagic longline fishery through increased observer coverage and implementation of new protocols for recording specifics of incidental capture (based on protocol used by National Marine Fisheries Service);
  • coastal community outreach through public education initiatives focusing on the fishing community;
  • a marine turtle sightings program;
  • stranding response and necropsies;
  • satellite telemetry program.

3.5.3 International actions

This Recovery Strategy is not an exhaustive review of actions taken on behalf of the Pacific leatherback in all countries.  The following summaries provide an insight into activities in selected countries. Not included, for example, are actions in Costa Rica and efforts to monitor and protect leatherbacks in Papua, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

International agreements 

A variety of international instruments, including conventions, non-binding agreements and codes of conduct, are relevant to conservation of the Pacific leatherback turtle. Under the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the leatherback turtle is listed as a migratory species that is threatened with extinction and that would benefit from international cooperation. The species is covered by two specific CMS Memoranda of Understanding, one pertaining to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, the other to the Atlantic coast of Africa. Leatherback turtles are also listed under the Inter-American Convention for Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Canada is not presently a Party to either one of these conventions.

Actions in the United States 

A U.S. Recovery Plan has already been completed for leatherbacks (NMFS and USFWS 1998).  Actions identified for leatherback conservation include (not in order of priority):

  • Eliminate incidental take of leatherbacks in U.S. and international commercial fisheries;
  • Support the efforts of Mexico and the countries of Central America to census and protect nesting leatherbacks, their eggs, and nesting beaches;
  • Determine movement patterns, habitat needs and primary foraging areas for the species throughout its range;
  • Determine population size and status in U.S. waters through regular aerial or on-water surveys;
  • Identify stock home ranges using DNA analysis.

The Pacific Drift Gillnet Observer Program, started in 1990, focuses on swordfish and thresher shark, but also provides information on sea turtles (http://swr.ucsd.edu/pacdgobs.htm).

The Hawaii Longline Observer Program was set up by the National Marine Fisheries Service to document the incidental take of sea turtles (http://swr.ucsd.edu/piao/).

The National Marine Fisheries Service requires trawl fishermen to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) (www.yoto98.noaa.gov/books/turtles/turtle2.htm).

The U.S. has closed some fisheries for certain time periods or in certain areas in an attempt to decrease the incidental capture of leatherbacks and other sea turtles.  Areas include waters off parts of California and Oregon (NMFS 2000; 2001).

Actions in Mexico 

Aerial surveys of nesting beaches began in 1996 and now include other parts of central America. In 1986 the nesting beaches of Mexiquillo (Michoacan), Tierra Colorada (Guerrero), and Chacahua (Oaxaca) were established as Sea Turtle Reserve areas (NMFS and USFWS 1998).  Conservation efforts within these reserves include relocation of eggs to protected areas, protection and tagging of nesting females, and gathering of biological information. Only Mexiquillo Beach has been monitored continuously for numbers of nests and females (over 12 years).  These data indicate that the nesting population has declined (NMFS and USFWS 1998).

Actions in Malaysia            

Conservation of leatherbacks in Malaysia started in 1961 when the Malayan Nature Society proposed the establishment of a hatchery in Rantau Abang (Balasingam 1965; Chan and Liew 1996).  In 1967 the Fisheries Department of Terengganu started a leatherback tagging program (Chua 1988).  In 1985 Universiti Kolej Terengganu started a major research and conservation project on sea turtles.  In 1987 local authorities convened a National Workshop on Sea Turtle Conservation and Management.  In 1987 the State Legislature of Terengganu amended the Turtles Enactment of 1951 to increase protection and management of sea turtles. 

In 1988, the Rantau Abang Turtle Sanctuary and the Turtle Sanctuary Advisory Council were established.  The state government banned the commercial sale and consumption of leatherback eggs in Terangganu in 1988 following the crash in leatherback abundance.  In 1989, World Wildlife Fund Malaysia started the “Save the Sea Turtles” Campaign.  Fisheries Regulations were amended in 1989 to ban the use of large-meshed driftnets throughout coastal waters of Malaysia, and again in 1991 to provide offshore protection to leatherbacks during the internesting period (Chan and Liew 1996).

The Fisheries Department has set aside a 10-km stretch of coastline south of Rantau Abang beach.  Eggs that are laid here are collected and reburied at hatcheries at the Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary.  The sanctuary also provides educational and public awareness activities (www.arbec.com.my/sea-turtles/turtleshaven.php).

[1]SARArequires that the recovery strategy identify “a statement of the population and distribution objectives that will assist the survival and recovery of the species” [SARA s.41(1)(d)].

[2]SARArequires that the recovery strategy identify “a description of the broad strategy to address those threats” [SARA s.41(1)(b)] and “a general description of the research and management activities needed to meet those objectives” [SARA s.41(1)(d)].

[3]As leatherback turtles in Pacific Canadian waters are likely to be from the same stocks as those in Pacific U.S. waters, Canada will develop measurable recovery criteria that take into account (but may not be identical to) the Recovery Criteria outlined in the ‘Recovery Plan for U.S. Pacific Populations of the Leatherback Turtle’(NMFS and FWS 1998, and any future revisions).  In particular, the Canadian recovery criteria will need to address the identification of source beaches, minimum viable stock size, and long term stability or growth of nesting populations (U.S. Recovery Criteria 1, 2 and 3).

[4]SARArequires that “the competent minister must determine whether the recovery of the listed wildlife species is technically and biologically feasible.  The determination must be based on the best available information, including information provided by COSEWIC” [SARA s.40].