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
Image of Leatherback Sea Turtle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Federal ProtectionThe 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
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
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
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 (1 record(s) found.)
- COSEWIC Status Reports (1 record(s) found.)
- Response Statements (1 record(s) found.)
- Action Plans (1 record(s) found.)
- Orders (2 record(s) found.)
- COSEWIC Annual Reports (1 record(s) found.)
- Recovery Document Posting Plans (1 record(s) found.)
Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation
COSEWIC Status Reports
COSEWIC Annual Reports
Recovery Document Posting Plans
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