Should we let leatherback sea turtles go extinct?

by John Hocevar

February 28, 2013

Boy holding leatherback turtle hatchling. French Guiana.1980

© Greenpeace / Jacques Fretey

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see a leatherback turtle, scientists say you are running out of time. One of the most remarkable creatures on earth, these Volkswagen-sized turtles can dive down to 4000 feet and migrate distances of 7000 miles. They have been around so long that they have seen the dinosaurs come and go, and shifting continents have moved their feeding and breeding areas to opposite ends of the earth. Unfortunately, unless we get our act together, they may be headed for extinction. According to Dr. Thane Wibbels, author of a new report, if the decline continues, within 20 years it will be difficult if not impossible for the leatherback to avoid extinction.

While I was in graduate school in Florida back in the early ’90s, I worked on a sea turtle project to help pay my tuition. I loved being on the beach at dawn, relocating sea turtle eggs laid the night before. We had to move them to a safe place, so they’d have a better chance of surviving when they hatched a couple months later. The all-time highlights were always when the leatherback nests hatched, and I carried hundreds of wrinkly, floppy baby turtles close to the water so they could crawl in and swim off into the waves. As big as the grown up leatherbacks get, the babies are small enough that they have to struggle heroically to avoid getting stuck in footprints in the sand.

In the short time since I worked on the turtle project, leatherback numbers have dropped by about two-thirds, which is particularly alarming given that they were already critically endangered at the time. I’m hoping that you are like me in being unwilling to give up on these graceful giants, so let’s talk about what we can do to try to save them. What’s killing the leatherbacks, and what can we do about it?

1. Prevent turtles from getting drowned in fishing gear, especially from tuna and swordfish longliners and gillnets. The use of Turtle Excluder Devices to keep turtles from drowning in shrimp trawl nets has helped, but compliance has been inconsistent. These problems are known to policy makers at NOAA and Regional Fishery Management Organizations, but so far they have failed to take sufficient action.

2. Keep garbage out of the ocean, especially plastic bags, balloons, and other disposable items that leatherbacks mistake for food. Each of us can reduce/reuse/recycle, as well as encourage our supermarkets and cities to do away with plastic bags.

3. Protect coastal nesting habitat. The more we develop our coasts, the harder it is for turtles to find quiet, dark beaches to lay their eggs. And when the babies hatch, they can often be disoriented by the bright lights and head out into the road instead of out to sea.

And as with all modern conservation challenges, it will also help if we quit stalling and shift to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. No turtles were ever killed by a solar energy spill, which is more than we can say for the 2010 BP Horizon spill which killed over 1000 sea turtles.

The scientists’ predictions are grim, but they assume that we – you, me, the companies we buy from and the governments we elect – will not do anything to save the leatherbacks. Let’s prove them wrong.

For the oceans –

John H

Stay tuned for upcoming news in the coming weeks on how you can help save leatherback turtles!

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.