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April 28, 2011

Experts Call for Protection of Leatherback Sea Turtles

Annual symposium ends with hope for endangered species

Humane Society International

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    Leatherback hatchling ready for his first swim. Scott Benson/NOAA

At its annual meeting in April 2011, the International Sea Turtle Society adopted a resolution [PDF] to increase protection for critically endangered leatherback sea turtles in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Leatherback sea turtles are the largest species of sea turtle and have survived for more than 100 million years, but they are now at risk of extinction, in large part due to incidental catch by commercial fisheries. In an attempt to reduce the impact of commercial fishing on sea turtle populations, the UN Food and Agriculture Institute (FAO) created a set of guidelines for fisheries to follow and countries agreed to abide by them.

In the eastern Pacific, where leatherbacks are facing imminent extirpation, member countries of the Inter-American Convention (IAC) on the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles in 2004 and Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in 2007 unanimously accepted these principles. However, there is little evidence that adequate conservation measures are being implemented and the decline of the species continues.

The FAO guidelines suggest closing fisheries in areas of the ocean and times of the year that are known to have high numbers of leatherback sea turtles. Such closures require international cooperation, as sea turtles migrate across borders. Marine scientists have been calling for years now for the protection of a marine corridor between certain Pacific islands including the Galapagos and Cocos, where leatherback sea turtles, hammerhead sharks and other marine animals migrate.

This new resolution [PDF]—introduced by Humane Society International, Pretoma, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and the Leatherback Trust and endorsed by renowned sea turtle experts from around the world—calls on countries in the region to fulfill their obligations to protect leatherback sea turtles from commercial fishing before it is too late.

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