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How to Protect Leatherbacks

After a long summer and even longer start to my fall semester, the Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Summit has come and gone. Over the last 3 days, there were 15 delegates from the Tambrauw Regency of Indonesia and about 30 representatives of different marine organizations/agencies (except those from the federal government). Everything went smoothly at the event, despite the concerns over the government shutdown. The big question at the press conference, “what’s next?”

After all the hard work that was put in to planning the Summit, getting the Indonesians to Monterey, and drafting the Memorandum of Agreement, leatherbacks should be even more protected. As Peter Dutton said, “this is just the beginning.” During the breakout sessions there was discussion of ways to continue to have an educational exchange between both countries. Plans to have future fundraisers were put on the table to better fund the partnership to protect leatherbacks. Even the governments discussed a plan to meet again in the future for the second leatherback summit (possibly in Indonesia). I have high hopes for the future of this agreement and for the plight of the Pacific leatherbacks!

Declaration signed to protect Pacific Leatherbacks

Declaration signed to protect Pacific Leatherbacks

More Than Just an Agreement

Leatherback sea turtles could be lost to us in 20 years if we don’t take aggressive steps for their survival. lPhoto: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA

Pacific leatherbacks need our help more than ever. Despite being listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1970 their population is currently declining at 6% per year. If this trend continues we could lose these magnificent turtles in 20 years.

In order to provide more protection for the species, political and scientific leaders from Indonesia, California, and the United States are gathering in Monterey, CA to talk about conservation efforts. For three days in October, there will be presentations and discussions with the purpose of forming an agreement between multiple agencies.  During the Bi-National Pacific Leatherback Conservation Summit, these experts will converse about the possibility of establishing a sister sanctuary to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) in Indonesia.

In 2012, a Sister Sanctuary agreement between the MBNMS and the Egadi Islands Marine Protected Area in Sicily, Italy was established. Both protected areas share a Mediterranean climate, unlike the beaches in the Papuan Bird’s Head Seascape. The Pacific leatherbacks act as an ambassador, traveling between Indonesia and California many times throughout their life.

It is our hope that the outcomes of the summit will provide the Pacific leatherback sea turtle with more support to continue for another 100 million years.

Originally posted on the Oceana blog.

California and Indonesia Urged to Build Relationships to Save Leatherback Sea Turtles


In response to Governor Brown’s signing of Assembly Bill 1776, which designates the endangered leatherback sea turtle as California’s official state reptile and designates October 15 as Leatherback Conservation Day, state and federal agencies have been encouraged to build cooperative relationships with the Western Pacific island nations, where Pacific leatherback sea turtlesreturn from California waters to nest. This fall, from October 14-17th, political leaders from Indonesia and the United States will meet with notable marine and leatherback scientific experts to discuss the status of the species, the population, international conservation efforts, current conservation efforts in both countries, and socio-economic research of conservation.

The reasons for the leatherback population decline are primarily related to human activities such ascapture in fisheries, egg poaching, habitat loss, marine plastic pollution, and climate changeThe U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service designated 41,914 square miles off the West Coast as critical habitat for leatherbacks in 2012 in response to a petition by Oceana to protect critical feeding grounds. On beaches in Bird’s Head peninsula, Indonesia, locals, with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund and UNIPA (The State University of Papua), have spearheaded local training, monitoring, patrolling, and are managing efforts to protect nesting sites, but funding for local efforts are limited. It’s time for California and Indonesia to pull their expertise and resources to save the leatherback.

Like the leatherbacks, representatives from Indonesia will migrate across the Pacific Ocean to Monterey, CA. They will meet with officials from the State and National governments to discuss an agreement to protect the endangered species from threats in both locations. The hope is that an agreement will provide support for increased protection of the nesting beaches and the entire Pacific leatherback population.

Originally posted on the Oceana blog.

A Mediterranean Summer

After a month in this lovely Mediterranean climate, I can safely say I’m glad to be here. Unlike the other CBE summer fellows in PalauPapua New Guinea, and Bali (despite researching these areas intensely) I am in one of the five mediterranean climates. From the map, you can see that Chile, South Africa, Australia, and, of course, the Mediterranean all share the same climate. This is a product of the cold waters being carried by ocean currents towards the shore. This “dry-summer subtropical” climate has several important impacts.

First, the Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub biome that is associated with the climate zones. These biomes have a massive amount of biodiversity of habitats and species. Collectively, these ecoregions harbor 10% of the Earth’s plant species. This is associated with the dry-summers and rainy winters, as well as the common feature of fires as a mode of change. In Monterey, fog and clouds are a distinctive feature of the climate as well.

Second, the combination of ocean currents and runoff from the rich vegetation on land results in an influx of jellyfish. Off the coast of California, brown nettle jellyfish are the most prominent, particularly during the fall months. And where there are jellyfish, there are leatherback sea turtles! Leatherbacks can be found all over the world, and the only distinguishing figures are the oceans, nesting beaches, and foraging areas the subspecies utilize.

Even though I’m not in Peru, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Malta, or the Middle East, I get to spend my summer in the beautiful Monterey. And once the summer is over and the jellyfish begin to spawn, I’ll be lucky enough to see a leatherback up close and personal on the third day of the Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Summit!

To Protect or Not to Protect, that is the Question

In my office for the past few weeks there has been a lot of talk about the (West Coast) great white sharks and the possible Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). From the perspective of my colleagues at Oceana and many other marine scientists, this subspecies of great whites is endangered, having fewer than 350 adults and threatened by gillnet fisheries. It seemed like a no brainer, the population is declining, the fisheries continue, and their end is near. But, contrary to peer-reviewed research, NMFS decided that there were 200 adult females left, which means they are not endangered, no?

“The federal government simply made the wrong decision in the face of the best available science,” said Geoff Shester, California program director for Oceana. “However, our efforts have demonstrated the dire need for more research on West Coast white sharks, and we should all agree that steps need to be taken immediately to start managing the white shark bycatch problem in gillnet fisheries.”

Of course there are many factors that contribute to the decision of the 8 scientists; from costs for further research to the losses to fisheries, yet it is almost like the federal government is in competition with marine organizations whose sole purpose is to protect species from extinction. So what is the next step?

The response to the petitions has yielded some benefits, including generating more interest in, and dialogue over, white shark research; increased public awareness of the importance of white sharks in the ecosystem and the threats facing them; and significant momentum for regulators to quickly tackle the shark bycatch problem. These may only be incremental steps to protect the majestic species made famous by film Jaws, but everything matters to activists.

Read the Center for Biological Diversity’s response to the decision here.

Great white shark courtesy of National Geographic

Gearing Up for the First Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day!

Leatherback hatchlings inch their way towards the wide and open ocean

We’re already gearing up for this year’s first official Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day on October 15! When Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1776 into law last year, he declared an official celebratory day for the Pacific leatherback sea turtle and made it the state’s marine reptile, in order to increase awareness and conservation of this endangered species. With the support of the state of California, we are working with state and federal agencies and other conservation organizations here and abroad to facilitate an official California-Indonesia leatherback partnership to better protect this amazing sea turtle at every stage of its lifecycle, from hatchling to adult.

This coalition is planning and organizing the first ever bi-national leatherback summit, which will bring political and scientific leaders from Indonesia and the United States to Monterey, California to discuss current conservation efforts taking place in these regions and to determine how we can best secure and share resources to conserve and manage this imperiled population of sea turtles effectively.

So, what is so important about the Pacific leatherback sea turtle?

Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) have roamed the oceans for over 100 million years, with very few changes to their behavior and physiology, and are essentially living dinosaurs, although leatherbacks fared much better than other dinosaurs. Unlike other turtles, leatherbacks lack a bony shell and can grow to over 2,000 lbs. Theses creatures migrate 6,000 miles across the Pacific each year, from nesting beaches in Indonesia to foraging areas off California’s coast where they feast on the massive jellyfish populations. Females lay clutches of around 100 eggs, but very few of the hatchlings actually survive to adulthood, which makes protection of each individual turtle exponentially more important.

We are already eagerly anticipating October 15 and the recognition of these incredible creatures and the threats that they face. Leatherback turtles are some of the world’s most ancient creatures; let’s work to ensure that they continue to swim our oceans for generations to come. Join us in our fight to give leatherbacks a future!

Originally posted on the Oceana blog.

Working in Heritage Harbor

Even though I’m not in Belize or Papua New Guinea for the summer, I get to work in a beautiful city and a unique location. Heritage Harbor, next to the fishermans’ wharf and the Bay, is the perfect place to work for anyone interested in marine issues. From the view of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the old whaling station adobe, with a mix of marine/environmental organizations, the plaza is a mix of past, present, and future for Monterey.

Coordination and collaboration are essential for ocean conservation and management, which helps when similar organizations can be seen from your window. Just a small list of the organizations here include: The Monterey Bay Aquarium (offices), the Nature Conservancy, various NOAA offices, the MBNMSF, Oceana (the Monterey office), and many more. I’ve already worked with persons from two other offices who are contributing to the success of the Leatherback Summit.

Leatherbacks vs. Mermaids

If you were lucky enough to catch The Animal Planet’s two new documentaries about mermaids, The Body Found and The New Evidence, you were probably left confused and uninformed. The audience was only informed at one point in the credits that the interviewees were actors, not scientists. And rather than covering the long list of problems that the ocean, and species that live in or near it, is facing, the films are about the hunt for mythical creatures that actual scientists are sure do not exist. The films may deserve to be aired, but is The Animal Planet the best channel? No, particularly when the national government has to release a statement to clear up the confusion. Mermaids are not real, but the threats to the ocean are.

In an article on Slate, a marine biologist lists 5 important facts about the ocean:

  1. The oceans are not inexhaustible, we’re currently overharvesting many resources, and the consequences can be disastrous.
  2. Current fishing practices are not just problematic for the fish species we are trying to catch.
  3. Just because a fish is from “the ocean” doesn’t mean you should release it in the nearest body of salt water.
  4. Sharks aren’t a threat to you, they’re important, and they’re in trouble.
  5. Although mermaids don’t exist, the ocean is still full of wonder, and it needs your help!

Courtesy of Animal Planet

Leatherbacks are linked directly to these same facts:

  1. When you continue to over harvest, you can remove a key species in the food chain. This can result in a trophic cascade, where the entire food chain falls apart. If you were to take out the leatherback, jelly populations would flourish, which would threaten other species and habitats, eventually disrupting the system throughout the ocean. Every species is important: tuna, salmon, etc.
  2. Bycatch, bycatch, bycatch. One of the biggest threats to leatherbacks is bycatch from the supertrawlers that roam the oceans. In the hunt for the main fisheries consumed around the world; turtles, dolphins, sharks, and seabirds are all victims to bycatch. Current estimates are that 7 million tons of bycatch are caught and discarded every year.
  3. Invasive species can destroy entire habitats. If introduced, a non-native species can outcompete the native species, wiping out populations and leading to extinction. What if this species ate all of the jellies in the foraging areas? Where would that leave leatherbacks?
  4. Sharks and leatherbacks are in the same boat (or ocean). They are both endangered and they are both essential to balancing the ocean.
  5. What you do affects the ocean even if you live far away, and there’s a lot that you can do to help. Purchase sustainable seafood. Use reusable grocery bags instead of single-use plastic bags, which can choke sea turtles or seabirds. Support politicians who support ocean conservation, or encourage your current elected officials to support the ocean. Most importantly, ask your friends and family to do the same. ~ David Shiffman

Now you know that mermaids are not real, the ocean is in trouble, and there are ways you can help.

Trawling Our Love Away

An excerpt from the book The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the Worldby Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans, was featured on Scientific American with the title “Net Loss: How We Continually Forget What the Oceans Really Used to Be Like“. The excerpt covered the history of bottom trawling, a fishing method that involves long nets with weights at the closed codend with the front held open by a steel beam that rake the sea floor scooping up any and all fish in its path. The idea of dragging steel beams on the bottom of the ocean sounds destructive to me, even before seeing the science about it. And in 1376, the first complaint came in about trawling, although it was known as “wondyrechaun” in that time period. Regardless of the name, habitat destruction is in no way acceptable yet it has only proliferated in the last century. Particularly in the “high seas,” one of the last remaining global commons, trawling is the norm, even for industrial supertrawlers.

As the excerpt describes, these supertrawlers have two major differences from trawlers in the past. First is the scale: the ships are huge, even in comparison to the size of the oceans. The world’s largest supertrawler can store 8 million servings of frozen fish in its hold and a 747 jet could fly through the ships trawl net opening. The second is digital technology. Trawlers can almost tell where every single fish in the ocean is located with all their satellite technology, seabed-mapping software, sonar, radar, GPS devices, and more. Both of these changes are made to satisfy our increasing appetite for seafood. The result? Fisheries everywhere are crashing and populations are far below any recorded levels. The article provides the example of the Patagonian Toothfish (also known as the Chilean Sea Bass), a plight that has been visualized via documentary, The Last Ocean. But the issue goes beyond that of just fisheries, by removing a link in the food chain the entire ecosystem begins to collapse.

Besides the fact that everyone should know how their fish is actually caught, the relevance of this article concerns the by-catch of leatherback sea turtles that suffer the consequences of this increased consumption. This is probably the biggest threat to this endangered species, but it is unrealistic to stop all consumption of fish. Worldwide, fish is one of the main sources of protein for more than a billion people. So what is the solution? Regulating fishing practices, consuming only sustainably harvested fish, and developing networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) are all viable options. Anyone, like myself, who loves the ocean would be deeply troubled to imagine an ocean without the rich diversity and abundance of life that has been immortalized in literature, documentaries, and dreams.

World Turtle Day


Did you know that the Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to feed on jellyfish that are abundant along the California coast during summer and fall months?

Today is World Turtle Day and although it is a celebration for all species of turtles on land and in the sea, I’m taking this day to celebrate the Leatherbacks. I have been reading research articles and press releases, watching videos and documentaries, and generally just familiarizing myself with the largest marine reptile. Even with protections under the Endangered Species Act, the government estimates that as many as 50,000 sea turtles die each year due to fishing gear such as longlines, trawls, gillnets, and dredges. This is a figure that breaks my heart but fuels the fire for making a difference for the majestic species.

How can you help? By not leaving trash on the beach and keeping an eye out for them if you boat in areas where they live. If you are near nesting beaches, follow lighting restrictions so you don’t disorient hatchlings, and refrain from spending time on the beach in areas where you can disturb them. Reducing your use of plastics, particularly plastic bags, helps keep it out of the oceans and out of sea turtle’s stomachs. Also, make sure to know how your fish was caught by eating only sustainably harvested seafood to limit support for fishers with by-catch.