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Recovering Endangered Indo-Pacific Leatherback Turtles

June 15, 2023

NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center spearheads international efforts to research and protect leatherback turtles in the Pacific Ocean.

A leatherback turtle swimming in the waters of the Kei Islands, Indonesia. A leatherback turtle swimming in the waters of the Kei Islands, Indonesia. Credit: WWF-Indonesia/Brian Rayanki (Photo taken under international permit)

The leatherback sea turtleone of the largest and most ancient reptiles on the planetis in danger of disappearing forever. Due to fisheries interactions, illegal egg and meat harvesting, and other activities, the species is at the brink of extinction. Teams of scientists and conservationists are working across the globe to save this iconic species. 

NOAA, World Wildlife Fund United States, and World Wildlife Fund Indonesia have been working to conserve leatherbacks in the Indo-Pacific Ocean since 2017. This partnership has encouraged locally driven leatherback conservation efforts, reduced the number of leatherback turtles and nests taken for consumption, and supported community monitoring and data gathering.

Indo-Pacific Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles in the Indo-Pacific Ocean are one of the most at-risk sea turtle populations on the planet. Their numbers have been reduced by more than 80 percent since the 1980s and the alarming decline continues. This population nests exclusively in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, with the majority of nesting primarily occurring along beaches in Indonesia. When not nesting, Indo-Pacific leatherbacks undertake extensive migrations that can take them across the entire Pacific Ocean. This often leads to them spending significant time in United States waters. These incredible journeys mean that the United States shares the important responsibility of leatherback turtle conservation and management with many other nations.

Four maps of important Indo-Pacific leatherback study sites, including Buru Island and Kei Islands in Indonesia, as well as Hawai‘i in the United States.
Maps of important Indo-Pacific leatherback study sites described in this web story, including Buru Island and Kei Islands in Indonesia, as well as Hawai‘i in the United States. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Alexander Gaos

Nesting Beach Protection

The poaching of leatherback turtle eggs by coastal communities is rampant throughout their primary nesting beaches and remains a top threat to the species. Because of this, not enough baby turtles hatch and grow to adulthood to replace the older leatherbacks when they die. Nesting leatherbacks are also vulnerable to harvest when they come on to beaches to lay eggs. This is particularly harmful to the population as adult females are the most valuable members of the species. Female leatherbacks typically lay five nests per season and do so every 2 to 3 years. It is important to engage coastal community members, many of whom traditionally harvested leatherback eggs and meat, on the need for protection and recovery efforts.

Leatherback hatchlings emerging from a nest on the beach.
Leatherback hatchlings emerging from a nest on Buru Island, Indonesia. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/John Wang (Photo taken under international permit)

In 2017, the partnership began a locally led monitoring and conservation program at newly identified leatherback nesting beaches on Buru Island in the Maluku province of Indonesia. These efforts, largely led by WWF-Indonesia’s ​​Maluku Province Director, Hero Ohoiulun, have led to unprecedented conservation successes. Before these efforts, approximately 60 percent of the 160 leatherback nests laid annually on Buru beaches were poached by villagers. Three to five nesting females would be taken for local consumption. Today, less than 1 percent of nests are poached, and the killing and consumption of nesting leatherbacks has ended! Collaboration with key village leaders and district and provincial government representatives were vital to these successes. Hero and WWF-Indonesia also spearheaded efforts to pass village-level laws against taking eggs and nesting females. They formed a community-based conservation group, called Pokmaswas, and took initial steps towards the creation of a Marine Protected Area focused on safeguarding nesting leatherback turtles. 

Reducing a Leatherback Hunt

The Kei Islands are also located within the Maluku province of Indonesia. Several villages there have traditionally engaged in an annual harvest of adult and juvenile leatherback turtles. These turtles are captured while foraging in nearshore waters. Large groups of leatherbacks near shorelines are extremely rare and the Kei Islands are the only place in the world where the hunting of swimming leatherbacks has been documented. 

In 2017, the partnership led a comprehensive effort to reduce the level of leatherbacks being harvested in the Kei Islands by:

  • Working with community members in villages that participated in the annual hunt
  • Establishing collaborations with key village leaders
  • Gaining support from church leaders
  • Ensuring cooperation from the district and provincial fisheries agencies

They also established a monitoring program made up of project staff in each of the villages that have traditionally participated in the hunt. They collect information that would allow harvest levels (and other data) to be tracked over time. The number of leatherbacks taken have been reduced by approximately 85 percent. 

The WWF-Indonesia team seeks to further reduce this annual leatherback turtle hunt and maintain conservation momentum. They are also working to support leatherback turtle management in the recently established Kei Island Marine Protected Area, which already has local, district, and provincial government commitments.

An aerial view of a leatherback turtle swimming in the waters of the Kei Islands, Indonesia.
A leatherback turtle swimming in the waters of the Kei Islands, Indonesia, during the first ever aerial drone surveys conducted over this unique foraging area. Credit: WWF-Indonesia/Hero Ohoiulun (Photo taken under international permit)

Community Perspectives

Most villagers living near the nesting beaches on Buru Island consider it extremely lucky when more than one leatherback turtle emerges to nest in a single night. However, many elders can recount fascinating stories from their youth about nights when as many as 30 leatherbacks would emerge to nest. That was before the coastal highway, consistent airline flights to the island, and the bustling port at Namlea city were established. Buru Island was isolated, so leatherback eggs and meat represented an important food and resource. Today, Buru Island is an important rice and maize producer for Maluku province, and harvesting leatherback eggs is much less vital for community members. Coupled with the knowledge that drastically less leatherback turtles return each year, community members are supportive of conservation efforts.

In the Kei Islands, the hunting of leatherbacks is rooted in important cultural rituals, with the harvested meat traditionally being shared as a community resource. In recent years there has been a shift to hunting for the meat for use as a trading commodity. Village leaders fear that the harvesting without regard for tradition is unsustainable and driving down the numbers of leatherbacks. Elders recognize that the loss of leatherback turtles would contribute to the loss of important cultural traditions for the Kei peoples. They voiced their concerns and created a willingness among locals to engage in and adopt leatherback turtle conservation measures. 

Local communities have grown to understand their critical role as partners and leaders in conserving the species. The resilient communities of Buru and Kei Islands have developed a sense of pride and culture of conservation around leatherbacks. It is galvanizing individuals, organizations, and government bodies throughout the Maluku province to proudly tout their role in recovering Indo-Pacific leatherbacks. This has also grown new livelihood opportunities, including tourism initiatives and financial opportunities through conservation programs and the developing Marine Protected Areas. 

Efforts to conserve leatherbacks and the importance of Indonesia for the species are also gaining attention throughout the country. In 2022, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries released the National Plan of Action for sea turtles. It serves as a guideline for national sea turtle management efforts through 2030. The document highlights leatherback turtles as a species of primary management concern and the importance of ongoing conservation efforts.

Local field staff team member from WWF-Indonesia measures a nesting leatherback across the width of its back at night on the beach..
Local field staff from WWF-Indonesia measuring a nesting leatherback during night monitoring on Buru Island, Indonesia. Credit: WWF-Indonesia/Hero Ohoiulun (Photo taken under international permit)

Gathering Data Together

The survival of leatherbacks largely lies in the hands of Indonesian coastal community members and national biologists. For almost a decade, the NOAA team has supported the growth of local monitoring, research, and conservation. They have worked with local stakeholders to ensure rigorous data collection on the number of females nesting each year and ongoing threat levels. Both are needed to effectively assess the Indo-Pacific leatherback population, model future population trends, and determine ongoing management needs. We have helped to train local project staff and biologists to deploy satellite tags on leatherbacks to track movement behaviors. The groups also worked together to spearhead the first ever unmanned aerial system to understand the density and distribution of leatherbacks in the unique Kei Islands foraging grounds. These data can inform management by identifying key foraging areas and migratory routes that can be targeted for conservation.

A leatherback turtle rests near the shoreline under a full moon.
A leatherback turtle with a satellite transmitter attached to its carapace emerges under a full moon to nest. The transmitter helps researchers understand leatherback movements and identify priority conservation areas. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Alexander Gaos (Photo taken under international permit)

Limiting U.S. Fishery Impacts

In the United States, Indo-Pacific leatherbacks often use the waters around the state of Hawai‘i and the high seas, where NOAA regulates important pelagic longline fisheries. Within these fisheries, incidental interactions may occur with leatherback turtles. NOAA established several regulatory measures to minimize these impacts, including safe handling and release guidelines. We also set a “hard cap” in the shallow-set longline fishery (targeting swordfish) that limits the number of Indo-Pacific leatherback interactions to 16 per a calendar year. If the hard cap is reached, the fishery is shut down for the remainder of the year. Fishery observers on longline vessels document all interactions with sea turtles and other protected species. These and several other longline mitigation measures were reviewed in a recent scientific publication. Gear changes, such as using large circle hooks, finfish bait, and setting gear deep, are among the most effective measures in minimizing bycatch. They are all required in Pacific Island longline fisheries. Many of the mitigation measures, especially fishery closures, impact the livelihoods of fishermen and the fishing industry. NOAA is highly motivated to protect both the species and the sustainability of U.S. commercial fisheries.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and we celebrate the protection, conservation, and recovery work it directs and supports, such as funding international conservation projects. Funding from the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office supports these two projects within the Maluku province and other key Indo-Pacific leatherback recovery efforts.

A Species in the Spotlight

NOAA Fisheries "Species in the Spotlight" brings specific attention and resources to nine marine species considered to be the most at-risk, including Pacific leatherbacks. As part of the initiative, NOAA developed a 2021—2025 Pacific Leatherback Priority Action Plan, which outlines the key conservation efforts needed to recover the population. In recognition of their key contributions for the conservation and recovery of leatherback turtles in the Maluku province of Indonesia, Hero Ohoiulun and WWF-Indonesia were awarded the 2023 NOAA Species in the Spotlight Hero Award! 

Although the situation facing Indo-Pacific leatherbacks is dire, the conservation actions and successes of individuals and organizations across the Pacific Ocean are true symbols of hope. 

For additional information on these research and conservation endeavors, contact Dr. Alexander Gaos or Dr. John Wang.