The drastic decline of the EP leatherback within the past three decades have been primarily due to fisheries bycatch, poaching, and climate change, leaving the subpopulation listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Redlist. The most recent IUCN population estimate (2013) was 633 total individuals, and current projections estimate that by the year 2040, there will be only 30 adults in the subpopulation. Only seven of these will be egg-laying females, which represents a 99.9% reduction in the subpopulation and represents functional extinction. Population size is estimated using the number of nesting females at the nesting beaches, internesting intervals, generation times (~30 years), and the persistence of threats.

In a recent study scientists from various nonprofits in Ecuador, Peru and Chile, as well as the Marine Turtle Research Group from the Center for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter have isolated three ports in Ecuador where bycatch of turtles is particularly high. A total of 765 surveys were conducted at major fishing ports in Ecuador, Peru and Chile and determined that total annual bycatch across these three countries is estimated to be around 46,478 turtles, with 87.1% of this bycatch occurring in Ecuadorian waters. Specific ports of interest in Ecuador that should be targeted for future study include Puerto Lopez, Manta, Esmeraldas and Santa Rosa. It has been recommended based on the findings of this study, to conduct more detailed surveys to gather specific information on species composition, fishing effort, fates of caught turtles, and bycatch quantity per species at these four ports (Alfaro-Shigueto et al. 2018).

Our colleague, Johanna Moreira at the Ministry of the Environment of Ecuador, has been collecting photos of leatherback standing events along the Ecuadorian coast. In 2018 alone there were 12 strandings (example photos below). Autospies have not found other plausible causes of death besides drowning in fishing gear.

Many studies have shown that using green LED lights placed every ~10 meters on gillnets can decrease the bycatch of turtles by 40-80% while not significantly affecting target fish catch! Initiatives are underway to develop green LED lights powered by renewable energy to reduce costs and increase longevity of conservation efforts. These bycatch reduction technologies will likely make saving the East Pacific leatherback a possibility.

Funds raised will be used to initiate a bycatch reduction campaign that will aim to rapidly reduce bycatch of the remaining leatherback individuals (and turtles of all other species) in the East Pacific.

Principal Activities:

  1. Investigating efficiency of bycatch reduction technology
  2. Implementing an on board observer program
  3. Community outreach and education
  4. Fisheries workshops on safe removal of turtles from nets

We need to take drastic action before it’s too late!

Our Director meeting with the Directors of the Instituto Nacional de Pesca and the Subsecretaria de Recursos Pesqueros about implementing an on board observer program and official bycatch reduction project in 2020.