MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA (AP)
Leatherback sea turtles have been plying the world’s oceans for tens of millions of years, but scientists say a rapid decline in their numbers means they could disappear from U.S. West Coast waters within decades.
All seven distinct populations of leatherbacks in the world are troubled, but a new study shows an 80 percent population drop in just 30 years for one extraordinary sub-group that migrates 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to feed on jellyfish in cold waters off California.
Scientists say international fishing and the harvest of eggs from nesting beaches in the western Pacific are to blame.
Scott Benson and his colleagues at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Monterey, California, have been studying this unique population for years.
In less than 30 years, the number of western Pacific leatherbacks in the foraging population off of California plummeted 80 percent, a new study co-authored by Benson shows a 5.6 percent annual decline.
He says about 1,400 adult females were counted on western Pacific nesting beaches, down from tens of thousands of turtles a few decades ago, there are as few as 50 foraging off California.
“The leatherback turtle is an ancient mariner. They’ve been around for almost as long as 80 million years in their present form, date back to the time of the dinosaurs,” says Benson.
“It’s not a poorly adapted species. They’ve been through all kinds of things: meteor strikes, climate changes, you name it. They have a way to deal with it. And right now, things like that wouldn’t be a problem for the population if it was still a large population.
“We’re down to the remnants right now. So, any little thing now could potentially disrupt it. So, we have just a very little time to turn it around,” he adds.
Part of the solution is doing more to engage other countries that don’t have strict rules protecting the giant turtles from getting killed or injured by commercial net fishing and long-line fishing.
The migrating turtles must swim 7,000 miles (11,265 kilometers) from Indonesia and the Solomon Islands to the U.S. West Coast to forage for jellyfish.
The journey is very dangerous.
“We put transmitters on them to track where they go and to inform our fishing fleet about where these animals are, so they can avoid interacting with them,” says Benson.
NOAA launched an aggressive initiative to save them in 2015 and will now release a new action plan this month to inspire greater international cooperation in reducing the number of eggs pillaged on beaches and the number of Pacific leatherbacks entangled in commercial fishing gear.
Benson hopes his most recent study will help draw more attention to the plight of this majestic – and ancient – animal.
Source: NewsNet | Sea Turtle Population Plummets Off U.S. West Coast