A New Plan of Action for East Pacific Leatherbacks

In 2012, with support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, more than thirty regional and international experts came together to develop a plan to stabilize and recover East Pacific leatherback turtle populations within ten years. The plan establishes realistic but ambitious population goals, defines key activities to address major threats to East Pacific leatherbacks, and outlines specific actions, metrics, timelines and financial needs to ensure success.

The effort was made possible by funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and was coordinated by the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group.


Group photo of regional experts

Members of the Expert Working Group gather in Huatulco, Mexico in March 2012 to discuss the action plan.


The Expert Working Group participants who contributed to the Plan of Action were:

Bryan Wallace* – Oceanic Society (USA), Jeffrey Seminoff and Peter Dutton – Southwest Fisheries Science Center–NOAA (USA), Vincent Saba – Northeast Fisheries Science Center–NOAA (USA), George Shillinger – Stanford University (USA), Michelle Pico – NFWF (USA), Laura Sarti and Ana Barragán – CONANP (Mexico), Raquel Briseño-Dueñas* – UNAM-Mazatlan (Mexico), Francesca Vannini – Oaxacan Wetland Network (Mexico), Celina Dueñas – MARN (El Salvador), Emilio Leon – FUNZEL (El Salvador), Mike Liles – Texas A&M University (USA, El Salvador), Colum Muccio – ARCAS (Guatemala), Jose Urteaga and Perla Torres – Fauna and Flora International (Nicaragua), Pilar Santidrián Tomillo – The Leatherback Trust (Costa Rica), Rotney Piedra – MINAE (Costa Rica), Randall Arauz – Pretoma (Costa Rica), Jacinto Rodriguez, Ozzy Vasquez – Fundación Agua y Tierra (Panama), Hector Guzman – STRI (Panama), Andres Baquero – Equilibrio Azul (Ecuador), Joanna Alfaro-Shigueto and Jeffrey Mangel – ProDelphinus (Peru), Javier Quiñones, Evelyn Paredes, Nelly de Paz – IMARPE (Peru), Shaleyla Kelez – ecOceanica (Peru), Jorge Azocar – IFOP (Chile), Miguel Donoso – Pacifico Laud (Chile), Paula Salinas – Universidad Arturo Prat (Chile), Veronica Caceres – Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles, Martin Hall – Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, Diego Amorocho*, Sandra Andraka, Alvaro Segura, Liliana Rendón – WWF.

*IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group Regional Vice-Chairs, East Pacific Ocean region


Map of Regional Management Unit

Map of the East Pacific leatherback Regional Management Unit.

The East Pacific (EP) leatherback regional management unit (see map at right) nests along the coast of Mexico, and Central and South America, and its area of occupancy extends from Baja California Sur, Mexico, to central Chile, and westward to 130°W. Primary nesting sites are found in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, in Mexico, and in the province of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Secondary nesting sites occur throughout México and Costa Rica, and also Nicaragua. Scattered nesting also occurs in Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. EP leatherback feeding areas have been documented off Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile (Shillinger et al. 2008; 2011; Bailey et al. 2012).

The precipitous decline in the EP leatherback population during the past two decades has been extensively documented (e.g. Santidrián Tomillo et al. 2007; Sarti Martínez et al. 2007), and was recently identified as one of the most endangered sea turtle RMUs in the world (Wallace et al. 2011). Comprehensive reviews of long-term nesting abundance in Mexico (Sarti Martínez et al. 2007) and Costa Rica (Santidrián Tomillo et al. 2007)—which together comprise nearly 90% of all EP leatherback nesting—concluded that nesting had declined more than 90% since the 1980s (see figure), from thousands of nesting females per year to no more than 1,000 adult females total in the population. Based on estimates of total annual abundance at the regional scale, this population now averages roughly 150-200 females per year nesting at currently monitored primary and secondary beaches (observed values: 100-150 females per year).

East Pacific leatherback nesting trend 1982-2011

Figure. East Pacific leatherback nesting by country, 1982-2011

Likewise, the drivers of this decline—both anthropogenic (e.g. bycatch, egg harvest) as well as environmental (e.g. resource limitation)—have been described in detail (for review see Wallace and Saba 2009). Furthermore, long-term monitoring and conservation programs at the most significant nesting beaches in Mexico and Costa Rica have essentially eliminated threats from human consumption of eggs and nesting females, and ongoing efforts at important sites in Nicaragua are increasing in effectiveness (Urteaga et al., 2012). However, despite these major advances in leatherback conservation, the abundance of this leatherback RMU remains perilously low, and continues to decrease slowly toward regional extirpation (see figure).

For these reasons, the time has come to rethink existing approaches to leatherback conservation in the region, and to implement a new plan of action to save leatherbacks in the EP. This Action Plan outlines the key priority actions identified by a group of regional experts to reverse the decline and to promote long-term recovery of leatherbacks in the East Pacific.

Continue reading: Goals & Objectives –>