Back from the brink? Saving East Pacific leatherback turtles from extinction

When I was a first-year graduate student in 2001, I made my first trip to Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas (Leatherback National Marine Park), in the northwest corner of Costa Rica, to begin my doctoral research on leatherback turtles.

For a couple of seasons before I arrived, biologists, park rangers, and local turtle tour guides had enjoyed a beach full of turtles throughout the nesting season. These good seasons were a very welcomed sight for all the groups working in the Park; the population had declined rapidly during the late-1990s. Everyone was very worried that the leatherback population that had once been so abundant that local folks referred to them as hormigas (“ants” in Spanish—imagine so many 500-pound animals in one place that people compared them to a mass of insects!) might be disappearing in front of their eyes.

The year I arrived, however, confirmed everyone’s fears; in contrast to the prior seasons’ counts of hundreds of turtles (and the thousands in the 1980s), we counted 69 turtles. Total. For the entire season. For comparison, locals thought nothing of 100, or even 150 turtles per night on the beach in the 1980s and early 1990s.

And this pattern was not unique to Las Baulas Park. The once-abundant leatherback population that nests from Mexico through Central America was undergoing a synchronized collapse. Overall, East Pacific (EP) leatherbacks have declined by more than 90% since the 1980s, ranking them among the most endangered sea turtle populations in the world.

The drivers of this decline—both anthropogenic (e.g. bycatch, egg harvest) as well as environmental (e.g. resource limitation)—have been known for a long time. Fortunately, some people saw early on that the level of egg harvest on nesting beaches was unsustainable, and established long-term monitoring and conservation programs at the most significant nesting beaches in Mexico and Costa Rica.

Two decades later, these programs have essentially eliminated threats from human consumption of eggs and nesting females, and emerging efforts at other important sites in Nicaragua are increasing in effectiveness. However, in spite of these major advances in leatherback conservation, EP leatherback abundance remains perilously low, and continues to decrease slowly toward regional extirpation.

For these reasons, the time has come to rethink existing approaches, figure out what else needs to be done, and design a new plan of action to save leatherbacks in the EP. With the support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), a group of sea turtle experts convened a workshop during the International Sea Turtle Symposium in Huatúlco, Mexico, in March 2012, to outline the first-ever regional action plan designed to address the major obstacles to leatherback recovery before it’s too late.

The result of that workshop—and the year since—is the Plan of Action to Save East Pacific Leatherbacks. The Plan is constructed on three major strategic pillars: 1) reducing mortality caused by fisheries bycatch, 2) increasing hatchling production through nest protection, and 3) strengthening regional coordination and collaboration. This Plan is being used as a roadmap for researchers, conservation groups, funders, and agencies region-wide to guide research and conservation work toward a common goal: saving EP leatherbacks from extinction.

Please use this site to learn more about the actions being implemented by a network of collaborators spanning the East Pacific region from the US to Chile to reverse the decline of leatherbacks. Bookmark the site and visit again in the future for updates from the field on new work, advances, and news on this important issue. Contact us for more information or with questions.

Time is running out on EP leatherbacks, but the collective actions of colleagues throughout the region outlined in the Plan of Action provide hope for the recovery of this population.