12-Month Finding on Petition to Identify Northwest Atlantic Leatherback Turtle as Distinct Population Segment
- Final Annual Determination for 2020 (85 FR 53684; August 31, 2020)
- Proposed Annual Determination for 2020 (85 FR 3880; January 23, 2020)
The leatherback is the largest turtle in the world. They are the only species of sea turtle that lack scales and a hard shell and are named for their tough rubbery skin and have existed in their current form since the age of the dinosaurs. Leatherbacks are highly migratory, some swimming over 10,000 miles a year between nesting and foraging grounds. They are also accomplished divers with the deepest recorded dive reaching nearly 4,000 feet—deeper than most marine mammals.
The leatherback turtle has the widest distribution of any reptile with a global range with nesting mainly on tropical or subtropical beaches. Once prevalent in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, the leatherback population is rapidly declining in many parts of the world. They face threats on both nesting beaches and in the marine environment. The greatest of these threats worldwide are incidental capture in fishing gear (or bycatch), and hunting of adults and collection of eggs for human consumptions. The Pacific leatherback populations are most at-risk for extinction. Pacific leatherbacks are one of eight Species in the Spotlight. NOAA Fisheries has made it a priority to focus recovery efforts on stabilizing and recovering Pacific leatherback populations in order to prevent their extinction.
NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and recovering turtle populations worldwide. We use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and recover these endangered species. We engage our partners as we develop regulations and recovery plans that foster the conservation and recovery of leatherbacks and their habitats, and we fund research and conservation projects to implement priorities outlined in recovery plans.
All leatherback populations are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It is estimated that the global population has declined 40 percent over the past three generations.
The Pacific leatherback populations are most at-risk for extinction as evidenced by ongoing precipitous declines in nesting through their range. Primary nesting habitats of the Eastern Pacific leatherback turtle population are in Mexico and Costa Rica, with some isolated nesting in Panama and Nicaragua. Over the last three generations, nesting in this region has declined by over 90 percent. In the Western Pacific, leatherback nesting in Malaysia has essentially disappeared, declining from about 10,000 nests in 1953 to only one or two nests per year since 2003. The largest remaining nesting population, which accounts for 75 percent of the Western Pacific population, occurs in Papua Barat, Indonesia and has also declined by over 78 percent.
In the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico, leatherback nesting was increasing; however, there have been significant decreases in recent years on the Atlantic coast of Florida, which is one of the main nesting areas in the continental United States.
The 2020 Status Review of the leatherback sea turtle under the ESA provides additional information on abundance and population trends.
The leatherback is the largest turtle in the world, and has a primarily black rubbery skin with pinkish-white coloring on its underside. They are the only species of sea turtle that lack scales. Their shell (carapace) consists of small, interlocking dermal bones beneath the skin that overlie a supportive layer of connective tissue and fat and the deeper skeleton. Their carapace has seven ridges along its length and tapers to a blunt point. Their front flippers are proportionally longer than in other sea turtles and their back flippers are paddle-shaped. Both their ridged carapace and their large flippers make the leatherback uniquely equipped for long distance foraging migrations.
Leatherbacks undertake the longest migrations between breeding and feeding areas of any sea turtle, some averaging 3,700 miles each way. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, but females leave the water to lay eggs. Leatherbacks are strong swimmers and can dive to depths of approximately 4,000 feet—deeper than any other turtle—and can stay down for up to 85 minutes.
Leatherbacks lack the crushing chewing plates characteristic of other sea turtles that feed on hard-bodied prey. Instead, they have pointed tooth-like cusps and sharp-edged jaws that are perfectly adapted for a diet of soft-bodied open ocean prey, such as jellyfish and salps. A leatherback's mouth and throat also have backward-pointing spines that help retain gelatinous prey.
Leatherbacks occur in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They occupy U.S. waters in the West Pacific, East Pacific, and Northwest Atlantic.
Pacific leatherback turtle nesting grounds are located in tropical latitudes in the eastern and western Pacific around the world. The largest remaining nesting groups are found on the coasts of northern South America, New Guinea and Papua New Guinea, West Africa, the Solomon Islands, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
Western Pacific leatherbacks feed off the Pacific Coast of North America, and migrate across the Pacific to nest in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Eastern Pacific leatherbacks, on the other hand, nest along the Pacific coast of the Americas in Mexico and Costa Rica and their marine habitats extend from the coastline westward.
The largest nesting populations in the Atlantic are in Trinidad, West Indies and Gabon, Africa. Within the United States, the majority of nesting colonies are in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with nesting in southeast Florida as well. Atlantic leatherbacks are distributed as far north as British Columbia, Newfoundland, and the British Isles, and as far south as Australia, Cape of Good Hope, and Argentina. Leatherbacks have been satellite tagged at sea on foraging grounds off Nova Scotia and tracked to nesting beaches in the Caribbean.
Leatherback turtles grow faster than hard-shelled turtles. However, there is uncertainty in the age that they reach sexual maturity. Estimates range from 9 to 29 years of age. Likewise, little is known about their life expectancy, but they are likely long-lived.
In the United States and Caribbean, nesting season lasts from March to July. Female leatherbacks dig a large body pit to lay their eggs in deep egg chambers/nests. A nesting leatherback will disturb a huge area on the beach and leave behind long, circling tracks. Satellite tagging studies of leatherbacks from the Western Pacific indicate that turtles that nest during different times of the year have different migration patterns. Summer nesting turtles (July through September) have tropical and temperate northern hemisphere foraging regions, while winter (November through February) nesters traverse to tropical waters and temperate regions of the southern hemisphere. Female leatherbacks return to nest every 2 to 3 years. They nest at night in tropical and subtropical beaches. Leatherbacks nest several times during a nesting season, typically at 8- to 12-day intervals and lay clutches of approximately 100 eggs. The eggs incubate approximately two months before leatherback hatchlings emerge from the nest. Newly hatched leatherback turtles are susceptible to predators. They are particularly threatened by artificial beachfront lighting that can disorient them and prevent them from finding the sea. Hatchlings orient by moving away from the darkest silhouette of the landward dune or vegetation to crawl towards the brightest horizon. On undeveloped beaches, this is toward the open horizon over the ocean. However, in areas with artificial lighting hatchlings are disoriented and often crawl landward instead of toward the ocean. Artificial light can similarly disorient nesting female turtles.
The primary threat to sea turtles is their unintended capture in fishing gear which can result in drowning or cause injuries that lead to death or debilitation (for example, swallowing hooks). The term for this intended capture is bycatch. Sea turtle bycatch is a worldwide problem. The primary types of gear that result in bycatch include gillnets, trawls, longlines, and buoy lines attached to pot/traps.
Historically, sea turtles including leatherbacks were killed for their meat and their eggs collected for consumption in some countries. Presently, leatherback turtles are protected in many countries where they occur, but in some places the killing of adult female leatherbacks and collection of eggs continue.
Coastal development and rising seas from climate change are leading to the loss of nesting habitat. These human-related changes include beachfront lighting, shoreline armoring, and beach driving. Shoreline hardening or armoring (e.g., sea walls) can result in the complete loss of dry sand suitable for successful nesting. Artificial lighting on and near nesting beaches can deter nesting females from coming ashore to nest and can disorient hatchlings trying to find the sea after emerging from their nests.
Various types of watercraft can injure or kill leatherbacks when they are at or near the surface to breath, feed, or rest. Vessel strikes are a major threat in developed coastlines and account for about a third of leatherback strandings in the eastern U.S.
Increasing pollution of offshore marine habitats threatens all sea turtles. Leatherback turtles may die after ingesting fishing line, balloons or plastic bags, plastic pieces, and other plastic debris which they can mistake for food. They may also become entangled in marine debris, including lost or discarded fishing gear, and can be killed or seriously injured.
The Pacific leatherback is one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight. This initiative is a concerted, agency-wide effort to spotlight and save the most highly at-risk marine species.
Pacific leatherback sea turtles are genetically and biologically unique. They migrate extreme distances across the Pacific Ocean from nesting to foraging/feeding areas, and are generally larger in size than Atlantic leatherbacks. Unlike populations of Atlantic leatherbacks, Pacific leatherback populations have plummeted in recent decades—Western Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 80 percent and Eastern Pacific leatherbacks have declined by more than 97 percent. Extensive egg collection and bycatch in fishing gear are the primary causes of these declines.
NOAA Fisheries designated all leatherback turtle populations as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1970. However, the Pacific leatherback population continues to decline. The dire status for Pacific leatherbacks make them a priority for recovery and conservation efforts within NOAA Fisheries and with our partners worldwide to stabilize and prevent extinction of this iconic species.
Pacific leatherbacks are split into two subpopulations—Western Pacific and Eastern Pacific—based on range distribution and biological and genetic characteristics. Western Pacific leatherbacks nest in the Indo-Pacific region and migrate to the tropical waters of the Indonesian seas, the South China Sea, and Malaysia and the Philippines, to the temperate waters of the North Pacific, including areas of open ocean in the central Pacific and coastal areas off the United States, as well as to southeastern Australia and New Zealand. Eastern Pacific leatherbacks nest along the Pacific coast of the Americas in Mexico and Costa Rica and migrate south to foraging grounds off South America.
Western Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 80 percent. Eastern Pacific leatherbacks have declined by more than 97 percent.
Leatherbacks are pelagic (open ocean) animals, but they also feed in coastal waters. Western Pacific leatherbacks engage in one of the greatest migrations of any air-breathing marine animal, swimming from tropical nesting beaches in the western Pacific (primarily Papua Barat, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands) to foraging grounds in the eastern North Pacific off the U.S. coast. The nearly 7,000-mile trans-Pacific journey through the exclusive economic zones of multiple Pacific nations and international waters requires 10 to 12 months to complete. In 2012, critical habitat was designated off of the U.S. West Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington), because these areas are key foraging sites for the Western Pacific leatherback. Foraging areas of East Pacific leatherbacks include coastal and pelagic waters of the southeastern Pacific Ocean.
Adult females require sandy nesting beaches in warm, tropical and subtropical climates for egg laying. Nesting occurs on unobstructed, high-energy beaches with either a deep water oceanic approach or a shallow water approach. The main characteristics of leatherback nesting beaches include coarse-grained sand; steep, sloping littoral zone; obstacle-free approach; proximity to deep water; and oceanic currents along the coast. West Pacific leatherbacks nest primarily in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands while East Pacific leatherbacks nest primarily in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
Like other sea turtle species, leatherbacks face significant threats from entanglement and/or hooking in commercial fisheries (known as bycatch), illegal collection of eggs and killing of adult turtles, coastal development, pollution, marine debris, and climate change.
Leatherbacks are particularly vulnerable to bycatch in fishing gear. Gear modification and best practices have been implemented in many fisheries that have reduced incidental bycatch of leatherbacks, but globally, impacts from artisanal and industrial fishing operations have not been resolved. Today, bycatch remains the most significant threat to Pacific leatherbacks throughout their migratory corridors and foraging/feeding areas.
The United States has taken significant steps to protect leatherbacks in our waters. In the Pacific, a leatherback conservation area was established off the coast of California in 2001 prohibiting drift gillnet fishing from August 15 to November 15 in 213,000 square miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone.
To reduce leatherback bycatch, the Hawaii-based shallow-set longline fishery is required to use large circle hooks and mackerel-type bait, as well as abide by sea turtle bycatch limits. Boat captains participating in the Hawaii-based longline fishery and the California drift gillnet fishery must attend Protected Species Workshops annually where they receive new and updated information on sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean like the TurtleWatch mapping tool, and are trained on safe handling and release procedures including the resuscitation of sea turtles. Longline fishermen are also required to carry and use dip nets, line cutters, and de-hookers to release any incidentally caught sea turtles.
In 2009, the Marianas Trench, Rose Atoll, and Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments were established, prohibiting commercial fisheries, thus providing important protected areas for leatherbacks in this region.
While significant conservation activities continue in the United States, the highly migratory nature of Pacific leatherbacks necessitates regular cooperation with international partners to address the main threats.
International collaboration includes participation in several multilateral and regional treaties that have resulted in measures to conserve leatherback populations. Some of the accomplishments under these agreements include the development of the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC) East Pacific Leatherback Task Force, which has identified measures to reduce mortality of Eastern Pacific leatherbacks in marine habitats and protect nesting sites and nesting females to increase reproductive productivity.
The United States also maintains a leadership role within several Regional Fishery Management Organizations, proposing and/or supporting resolutions to protect sea turtles including binding measures to reduce fisheries interactions
In addition to regional and multilateral agreements, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) support bilateral projects (through grants and in-kind support) to recover Pacific leatherbacks throughout their range. For example, in Papua Barat, Indonesia—a significant nesting area for Western Pacific leatherbacks—NOAA Fisheries and U.S. FWS have collaborated with local institutions, like The State University of Papua (UNIPA), for more than a decade to reduce poaching on nesting beaches, establish regular nesting surveys, improve community engagement in the protection of the nesting beaches, and ensure that protection continues into the future. UNIPA’s work has been instrumental in building local support for conserving and recovering Pacific leatherbacks. As a result, NOAA Fisheries named Dr. Fitry Pakiding from UNIPA, a Species in the Spotlight hero. NOAA Fisheries and USFWS also work bilaterally with several countries to reduce leatherback bycatch in coastal waters, particularly in the Pacific.
As part of our Species in the Spotlight initiative, NOAA Fisheries developed a 5-year plan of action for the Pacific leatherback, which details the key conservation efforts that are needed to recover this critically endangered species. Without focused efforts in the Pacific, leatherbacks may not recover and may become eliminated from the entire ocean basin.
Together with USFWS, we identified the following priority actions for 2016-2020.
In our first five years of the Species in the Spotlight initiative, we have:
We are renewing our Priority Actions plans for 2021-2025.
Leatherback turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, listed as endangered. This means that the leatherback turtle is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. NOAA Fisheries is working to protect and recover this species in many ways, with the goal that populations will increase worldwide.
In the United States, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. FWS) have joint jurisdiction for sea turtles, with NOAA having the lead in the marine environment and U.S. FWS having the lead on the nesting beaches. Both federal agencies, along with many state agencies and international partners, have issued regulations to eliminate or reduce threats to sea turtles, while working together to recover them.
Once a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries evaluates and identifies whether any areas meet the definition of critical habitat. Those areas may be designated as critical habitat through a rulemaking process. The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, wilderness reserve, preserve, or other conservation area; nor does the designation affect land ownership. Federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect these designated critical habitat areas are required to consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure that their actions do not adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.
In 1979, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for endangered leatherback turtles for coastal waters adjacent to Sandy Point in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. In 2012, NOAA Fisheries also designated critical habitat for endangered leatherbacks along the U.S. West Coast.
View critical habitat maps for leatherback turtles:
To help identify and guide the protection, conservation, and recovery of sea turtles, the ESA requires NOAA Fisheries and the USFWS to develop and implement recovery plans for most listed species. Recovery plans provide a blueprint for conservation of the species and measurable criteria to gauge progress toward recovery.
The major recovery actions for leatherback sea turtles include:
Two recovery plans have been developed to recover and protect leatherback turtle populations that are found in U.S. waters. Each is focused on the unique needs of turtles in the various regions. Current recovery plans for leatherback turtles:
The highly migratory behavior of sea turtles makes them shared resources among many nations, so conservation efforts for sea turtle populations must extend beyond national boundaries. This necessitates international collaboration and coordination. Learn more about international conservation efforts below.
NOAA Fisheries is working to minimize effects from human activities that are detrimental to the recovery of leatherback turtles in the United States and internationally. Together with our partners, we undertake numerous activities to support the goals of the leatherback turtle recovery plans, with the ultimate goal of species recovery.
Efforts to conserve leatherback turtles include:
Pacific leatherbacks are one of eight NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight.
NOAA Fisheries is working to reduce the bycatch of sea turtles in commercial fisheries. Our efforts are focussed on documenting bycatch, understanding how, why, and where sea turtles are bycaught, and how to reduce that bycatch. We have developed modifications to fishing gear and practices to reduce bycatch and/or reduce bycatch injuries. We require these modifications in certain U.S. commercial fisheries including gillnets, longlines, pound nets, and trawls that unintentionally interact with sea turtles. Measures include:
In the United States, NOAA Fisheries has worked closely with the shrimp trawl fishing industry to develop Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to reduce the mortality of sea turtles bycaught in shrimp trawls. TEDs are required in the shrimp otter trawl fishery and, in early 2021, in larger vessels participating in the skimmer trawl fishery.
Since 1989, the U.S. has prohibited the importation of shrimp harvested in a manner that adversely affects sea turtles. The import ban does not apply to nations that have adopted sea turtle protection programs comparable to that of the U.S. (i.e., require and enforce the use of TEDs) or to nations where bycatch in shrimp fisheries does not present a threat to sea turtles (for example, nations that fish for shrimp in areas where sea turtles do not occur). The U.S. Department of State is the principal implementing agency of this law, while we serve as technical advisor. We provide extensive TED training throughout the world.
We are also involved in cooperative gear research projects, implementation of gear technologies to reduce bycatch, and safe handling protocols designed to reduce sea turtle bycatch and mortality in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic pelagic longline fisheries, the American Samoa and Hawaii-based longline fisheries, the Atlantic sea scallop dredge fishery, the Chesapeake Bay pound net fishery, and non-shrimp trawl fisheries in the Atlantic and Gulf.
Bycatch in fishing gear is the primary human-caused source of sea turtle injury and mortality in U.S. waters. The most effective way to learn about bycatch is to place observers aboard fishing vessels. Observers collect important information that allows us to understand the amount and extent of bycatch, how turtles interact with the gear, and how bycatch reduction measures are working.NOAA Fisheries determines which fisheries are required to carry observers, if requested to do so, through an annual determination. Observers may also be placed on fisheries through our authorities under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
A stranded sea turtle is one that is found on land or in the water and is either dead or is alive but unable to undergo normal activities and behaviors due to an injury, illness, or other problem. Most strandings are of individual turtles, and thousands are documented annually along the coasts of the U.S. and its territories. Organized networks of trained stranding responders are authorized to assist live turtles and document important information about the causes of strandings. These networks include federal, state, and private organizations. The actions taken by stranding network participants improve the survival of sick, injured, and entangled turtles while also helping scientists and managers expand their knowledge about threats to sea turtles and causes of mortality.
Because sea turtles spend most of their life at sea and out of sight, information learned from strandings are an important way for us to identify and monitor problems that threaten sea turtle populations.
Within the United States and its Territories, there are three regional networks that serve to document and rescue stranded and entanglement sea turtles:
Learn more about the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.
The conservation and recovery of sea turtles requires international cooperation and agreements to ensure the survival of these highly migratory animals. We work closely with partners in many countries across the globe to promote sea turtle conservation and recovery. Two international agreements that are specifically focussed on sea turtle conservation:
Additional international treaties and agreements that also protect sea turtles include:
The leatherback turtle was first listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1970. Like other sea turtles, it falls under joint jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (while on land) and NOAA Fisheries (while in water).
In 2017, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (together, the Services) received a petition to identify the Northwest Atlantic leatherback subpopulation as a DPS and list it as threatened under the ESA. The petition included a detailed narrative (PDF, 57 pages) and State notification (PDF, 72 pages). NOAA Fisheries found that the petitioned actions may be warranted and published a 90-day finding, which announced commencement of a status review of the species and requests information on leatherback turtles. Based on the best available information, presented in the 2020 ESA status review of the leatherback sea turtle, and after taking into account conservation efforts on behalf of the species, the Services published a 12-month finding in which they determined that the petitioned actions are not warranted. The leatherback turtle remains listed as an endangered species under the ESA.
In 1992, we finalized regulations to require turtle excluder devices in shrimp trawl fisheries to reduce sea turtle bycatch. Since then, we have updated these regulations as new information became available and TEDs were modified to improve their turtle exclusion rates.
We have also implemented other measures to reduce sea turtle bycatch in fisheries through regulations and permits under both the ESA and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. These requirements include the use of large circle hooks in longline fisheries, time and area closures for gillnets, and modifications to pound net leaders.
NOAA Fisheries conducts research on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the leatherback sea turtle. The results of this research are used to inform conservation management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for the species.
Turtle population assessments ideally include information on the species’ abundance and distribution, life history, and human impacts. This information can help us evaluate the effectiveness of conservation and recovery measures, and can help guide actions to enhance recovery. To estimate population abundance, researchers conduct aerial and vessel-based surveys of selected areas and capture and mark turtles in the water and on beaches. We also incorporate data collected on nesting beaches, via stranding networks, and from fisheries observer programs. Other information that informs sea turtle population assessments includes population structure (genetic analyses), age to maturity, survivorship of the various life stages (e.g., hatchling, juvenile, adult), foraging and reproductive behavior, movement and distribution, and habitat studies.
Satellite telemetry allows researchers to track sea turtles as they swim from place to place. Tags are designed and attached in a manner that minimizes disturbance to the turtle. The data help us understand migration patterns, identify feeding areas, and identify where turtles overlap with their primary threats (e.g., fishing gear).
NOAA Fisheries’ scientists began tracking Pacific leatherbacks from the California foraging grounds in 2000 and have expanded these studies to the nesting beaches in the western Pacific after documenting that the California turtles were from there. Learn more about tagging and tracking of leatherbacks in the Pacific:
We observe fisheries to understand the amount of sea turtle bycatch in various fisheries and the ways in which turtles interact with fishing gear. We develop modifications to fishing gear and/or fishing practices to reduce sea turtle bycatch while at the same time retaining a sustainable fish catch. These efforts include Turtle Excluder Device development for trawl fisheries, use of circle hooks and certain bait types in longline fisheries, time and area closures for gillnets, and modifications to pound net leaders.
NOAA Fisheries’ National Sea Turtle Molecular Genetics Center serves as a worldwide resource and repository for sea turtle tissue and DNA samples and constitutes a major area of research supporting sea turtle conservation. For example, a turtle’s unique genetic “fingerprint” can be used to determine which nesting population it originated from.
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