Species Profile

Leatherback Sea Turtle Pacific population

Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
Taxonomy Group: Reptiles
Range: Pacific Ocean
Last COSEWIC Assessment: May 2012
Last COSEWIC Designation: Endangered
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered


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Quick Links: | Taxonomy | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Recovery Team | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Leatherback Sea Turtle

Taxonomy

Fishes

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Description

Leatherback Sea Turtles are the last remaining member of the family Dermochelyidae, an evolutionary lineage thought to be 100-150 million years old. Leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtle species, weighing in up to 900 kg with a shell length of up to 2 m. The Leatherback is the only sea turtle that does not have a hard shell. Instead, its shell is covered with leathery, slightly flexible, fibrous tissue overlaying interlocking bony plates. The bluish-black shell has seven front-to-back ridges and tapers to a blunt point, creating a hydrodynamic teardrop-shaped structure. Their front flippers are proportionally longer than other sea turtles’, often half as long as its shell. Unlike other sea turtles, Leatherbacks’ flippers have no claws. The shell, neck, head, and front flippers are often covered in white or bluish-white blotches. Adult Leatherback Sea Turtles have a distinct pink patch on top of their heads, which is unique in size, shape, colour, and pattern. Leatherbacks feed primarily on gelatinous prey, such as jellyfish and salps. They do not have the chewing plates found in other sea turtle species; instead they have sharp edged jaws and backward-pointing spines lining their mouth and esophagus, that help to retain and swallow soft-bodied prey.

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Distribution and Population

Ranging further than any other reptile, the global population of Leatherback Sea Turtles is comprised of seven biologically and geographically distinct subpopulations, located in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and extending from approximately 71°N to approximately 47°S. There are two populations of Leatherbacks that enter Canadian waters: the Atlantic population, found off the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island; and the Pacific population, off the coast of British Columbia.

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Habitat

The Pacific Leatherback has two principal nesting populations: one in the Eastern Pacific, including beaches in Mexico and Costa Rica; and one in the Western Pacific, including beaches in Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Leatherback Sea Turtles in Canadian Pacific waters are part of the Western Pacific population, migrating long distances (up to 15,000km) from the Indo-Pacific nesting beaches, to forage on jellyfish and other gelatinous prey species. Leatherbacks are rarely observed in Canadian Pacific waters, with only 126 unique sightings reported in British Columbia waters from 1931 to 2009. The pelagic nature of this species, combined with the difficulty in sighting them from a distance result in many unknowns with respect to their use of habitat off the coast of British Columbia. The Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle has exhibited declines of up to 95% in the last 50 years and is Endangered.

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Biology

Females lay approximately 100 eggs each time, several times during a nesting season, typically at 8 to 12 day intervals. They remigrate to the nesting site every 2 to 3 years. Hatchlings emerge from the nest after approximately two months, and make their way down the beach to the ocean. Nesting and hatchling emergence usually occur at night, possibly to avoid predation and, for the hatchlings, to decrease the risk of desiccation as they make their way to the ocean.

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Threats

On Indo-Pacific nesting beaches, Leatherback eggs are subject to predation by mammals such as pigs and feral dogs. Nest predation by humans can also be a problem, as Leatherback eggs are consumed as a delicacy in some countries. Increased development on or near nesting beaches has a negative impact on the hatchlings that emerge from nests, as they are often disoriented by the bright lights and can succumb to exhaustion, dehydration, or predation as they struggle to find their way to the ocean. Although female Leatherbacks lay about 100 eggs at a time and may nest up to 10 times a season, only a few hatchlings will survive to grow to adulthood and breed. Leatherback Sea Turtles are vulnerable to human-induced threats in the marine environment throughout their lives. There is substantial evidence that they are incidentally caught in numerous fisheries, and entanglement in fishing gear is not uncommon. While many fishers are careful to release trapped Leatherbacks, some turtles drown or sustain lethal injuries before assistance is given. Leatherbacks can also become tangled in discarded debris, collide with vessels, or mistake drifting plastic bags and debris for jellyfish prey, the ingestion of which can lead to obstruction of the digestive system and ultimately death from starvation.

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Leatherback Sea Turtle, Pacific population, is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Recovery Team

Pacific Region Species at Risk Program

  • DFO Pacific Region - MPO région du Pacifique - Chair/Contact - Fisheries and Oceans Canada
    Phone: 604-666-7907  Send Email

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Recovery Progress and Activities

Several achievements contributing to the recovery of the species have been realized in recent years. The West Pacific population of the Leatherback Sea Turtle is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which sets controls on the international trade and movement of species that have been, or may be, threatened due to commercial exploitation. Canada is a member of CITES, and restricts movement or trade of listed species (or parts from listed species) across its borders. The Leatherback Sea Turtle is protected in Canada under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in Pacific Canadian waters has been finalized, and an action plan is being finalized. For more information, visit the SARA Registry Website at www.SARAregistry.gc.ca

Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

8 record(s) found.

Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation

  • Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in Canadian Pacific Waters for the Period 2007 – 2012 (2015)

    Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) occur in the Atlantic and Pacific waters of Canada. In 1981, the species was assessed by the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as endangered, and were listed on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in June 2003. In 2012, it was recognized that a single designation is not sufficient to describe Leatherback Sea Turtles in Canada, as Atlantic and Pacific populations are discrete and evolutionarily significant. Current understanding of population structure, sources, status and threats differ significantly between the Canadian Atlantic and Pacific populations, and the species was re-assessed by COSEWIC as two separate designatable units – the Leatherback Sea Turtle (Pacific population) and the Leatherback Sea Turtle (Atlantic population). Both populations maintain Endangered status.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Leatherback Sea Turtle Dermochelys coriacea Atlantic population Pacific population in Canada (2013)

    The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of the seven extant species of marine turtles, and is the sole living member of the family Dermochelyidae. The leatherback has a shell covered by a leathery, slightly flexible, fibrous tissue embedded with tiny bones (osteoderms). The carapace is teardrop-shaped and has seven conspicuous longitudinal ridges. It is dark bluish-black, and the carapace, neck, head and front flippers are often covered with white, or bluish-white, blotches. The plastron is pinkish-white. Adults have a distinct pink spot on the top of the head. Please note: Reference information has been updated on pages 11, 34 and 45 (May 2015).

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Leatherback Sea Turtle, Pacific population (2013)

    The Pacific population of this species has collapsed by over 90% in the last generation. Continuing threats include fisheries bycatch, marine debris, coastal and offshore resource development, illegal harvest of eggs and turtles, and climate change.

Action Plans

  • Multi-species Action Plan for Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (2016)

    Backed by the Insular Mountain Range of Vancouver Island and facing the open Pacific Ocean, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (Pacific Rim NPR) protects and presents the rich natural and cultural heritage of Canada's west coast. Pacific Rim NPR consists of three distinct units, the Long Beach Unit, Broken Group Islands Unit, and West Coast Trail Unit, each offering a range of unique visitor experiences. With significant areas (51,216 ha in total) of old growth, temperate rainforest, coastal dune systems, wetlands and foreshore, and marine habitats, the park demonstrates the interconnectedness between land, sea, and people. These natural wonders are interwoven with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations culture (past and present), and that of European explorers and settlers.

Orders

  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (2016)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, acknowledges receipt, on the making of this Order, of the assessments done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with respect to the species set out in the annexed schedule.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (2017)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, pursuant to subsection 27(1) of the Species at Risk Act, makes the annexed Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2011-2012 (2012)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to “assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species”. COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (September 1, 2011 to September 30, 2012) from November 21 to 25, 2011 and from April 29 to May 4, 2012. On February 3, 2012, an Emergency Assessment Subcommittee of COSEWIC also assessed the status of the Tri-colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus), the Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), and the Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis). During the current reporting period COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 67 wildlife species. For species already found on Schedule 1 of SARA, the classification of 32 species was reviewed by COSEWIC and the status of the wildlife species was confirmed to be in the same category (extirpated - no longer found in the wild in Canada but occurring elsewhere, endangered, threatened or of special concern). The wildlife species assessment results for the 2011-2012 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 1 Extirpated: 4 Endangered: 29 Threatened: 10 Special Concern: 15 Data Deficient: 2 Not at Risk: 6 Total: 67 Of the 67 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 49 species that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 26 of those species resulted in a confirmation of the same status as the previous assessment (see Table 1a).

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Recovery Document Posting Plan - Fisheries and Oceans Canada - Fiscal Year 2016-2017 (2016)

    Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the competent Minister(s) must prepare a recovery strategy within one year of listing a species on Schedule 1 of SARA as endangered and within two years of listing a species as extirpated or threatened. A management plan must be prepared within three years for a species listed as special concern. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is accountable for 111 of the 518 species listed under SARA. As of February 2016, proposed recovery strategies, management plans and action plans for 57 of those species have not yet been posted to the Species at Risk Public Registry. An additional 23 aquatic species have proposed management or action plans coming due in the future. The following outlines the Department’s plan for posting proposed documents for 64 species on the Species at Risk Public Registry. The Department has a plan to post recovery strategies for 9 species, management plans for 13 species, and action plans for 42 species over the next year.