Let Us Save the Leatherback Turtle

The Leatherback Turtle, one of the most ancient species of marine turtle to roam the oceans of the world, and also the largest in existence, is on the point of disappearing. The extraordinary and majestic Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys Coriacea), with its smooth skin and seven edges along the carapace, has for millennia crossed, among others, the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. In Mexico it can be found nesting, not only on the coasts of Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca, but also in Baja California, Colima, Jalisco and Chiapas. In the Eastern Pacific the most important nesting countries are Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The largest Leatherback turtle ever recorded was 2.7 meters long, 1.8 meters wide and it weighed some 900 kilos. In search of its food it can, like the jellyfish, go down to a depth of 1,500 meters.

Seeing the Leatherback in serious danger of becoming extinct, many scientists in Mexico and abroad are fighting for its recovery before it becomes too late. Todd Steiner from the Marine Turtle Recovery Network has sent a letter to President Fox warning him that, if his government does not take more drastic action, the Leatherback Turtle will be extinct in the coming decades. Unfortunately the fishing fleets that use longlines in their search for shark, swordfish and tuna, are protected by the Fisheries Section of the (Mexican) Ministry of Agriculture. “Over the last ten years their numbers have declined to 1% of what they were, so dramatically that it will be difficult for those that remain to recover the species,” said the biologist Carlos Drews, from the World Wildlife Forum. Concluding that the global population of Leatherbacks has declined by 95% over the past 22 years, more than 400 scientists have sent a letter to Kofi Annan and the United Nations asking for a moratorium on fishing gear that uses long lines and drift nets and urging the governments of countries where the Leatherback Turtle nests to take immediate action to protect their sites and prevent the plundering of their eggs. According to the biologist Laura Sarti from the Wildlife department of SEMARNAT and the person most knowledgeable about the Leatherback Turtle, at the beginning of the 1980’s there were 75,000 adults (and 115,000 worldwide), but in the season which has just ended there were estimated to be less than 500 adults.

The principal reasons for this decline are:

  1. Bycatches through the use of longlines and drift nets. With the longlines, fishing boats set between 64 and 97 kilometers of line from which hang thousands of hooks, with the result that they catch every live species that passes by: dolphins, whales, Cortez harbor porpoises, and marine turtles. In these lines, the Leatherback, in its struggle to untangle itself, gets hooked and drowns. The boats take what they are looking for: shark, tuna or swordfish. The rest they return to the ocean, dead. According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust, every year the long liner fleets set to one and a half billion hooks into the worlds’ oceans, an unsustainable quantity that calculates to 4.5 millions hooks every night. More than 90% of these pillagers who plough through the international waters using long line gear are Asian fleets from Taiwan and Korea. The Latin American fleets come from Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
  2. The ransacking of nests on the hatching beaches of Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Due to the fact that there is a backward population in Latin America that considers turtle eggs to be an aphrodisiac and consumes them as snacks in markets, bars and restaurants. In spite of the Mexican laws that prohibit this vandalism, and the protection efforts of the biologist Sarti, who is in charge of the project for the recovery of the Leatherback Turtle, there are always fewer and fewer eggs.
  3. The destruction of nesting areas by urban, industrial and tourst developments. This is a constant danger. At this time all the following beaches are under a latent threat: Mexiquillo, Michoacan, Tierra Colorada, Guerrero, Barra de la Cruz and Cahuitan, Oaxaca, and the Los Cabos area. A project exists for a coastal highway from Acapulco to Puerto Escondido that would pass by the nesting beaches of the Leatherback and Gulf Turtles. Why does the highway have to go along the coast and not through the interior?
  4. Shore fishing along the Pacific Coast. This affects the Leatherback Turtle in nesting areas because the fishermen set their nets in front of the beaches. In this case, vigilance needs to be increased to prevent incidental deaths of the turtles.

Mexican ecological associations are proposing that, in the meeting of the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Turtle taking place in Costa Rica this August, Mexico not give in to Fishing interests. Here it should be SEMARNAT (Ministry of the Environment) and not SAGARPA (Ministry of Agriculture), an accomplice of the plunderers of our marine species, which plays the leading role.

It is essential that Regulation 029 (which regulates shark fishing) set forth conditions that favor marine turtles, beginning with the acceptance of the circular hook for all long lines. In the United States a 60% reduction in incidental capture of the Leatherback Turtle has been achieved through use of the circular hook because the J hook catches the fins of the turtles. It is vital to enlarge the areas of protection on the Leatherback’s nesting beaches. The migration routes of the Leatherback along the Pacific coast of Mexico must be protected, and this means there must be a 50 mile limit from shore for large and medium-sized boats. “It seems that there are orders to block any proposal that seeks to protect the shark, as well as species at risk like the Leatherback and other turtles, whales, seals and species reserved for sport fishing like the swordfish”, declared the biologist from the Defenders of Mexican Wildlife, Juan Carlos Cantu.

Mexico declared a total ban on the killing and commercialization of marine turtles in 1990, thanks to a campaign led by the Committee of One Hundred. Why does our government not take the lead, on the national and international level, to protect the Leatherback Turtle, beginning by closing the nesting beaches at night, as in other countries, to protect the eggs from thieves? The Leatherback population cannot sustain more losses nor fishing industry politics more immorality. We must halt the extremely harmful practices permitted by SAGARPA through CONAPESCA (fisheries branch of SAGARPA), which issues the permits and where Jeronimo Ramos, the National Commissioner for Aquaculture and Fisheries, has shown himself to be the leading enemy of marine species in Mexico from the time of the Salinas presidency to that of Fox.

To save the Leatherback Turtle from extinction, it would be ideal if the Mexican government were to issue an immediate ban on the use of long lines and drift nets in Mexican waters. It would be certainly worth the concentrated effort to save one of the oldest species on Planet earth, the Leatherback Turtle.