**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
California’s first official Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day on October 15 came at the peak of the season for leatherbacks feeding on jellyfish along the state’s coastline. As many as 300 endangered leatherbacks swim the coastline every year in search of jellyfish. Recording and sharing observations of these rare marine reptiles is the focus of the Leatherback Watch Program (http://www.seaturtles.org/leatherbackwatch), a collaborative citizen science project organized by Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.org).
The volunteer program works to record and communicate sightings of leatherback sea turtles off the west coast of North America. The information is then used to further leatherback education, research, and conservation.
The Leatherback Watch Program sponsors educational expeditions from the San Francisco Bay to the Farallon Islands in search of leatherbacks and to celebrate Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day every year (http://www.seaturtles.org/plcd). Dr. Chris Pincetich, the Leatherback Watch Program manager, is always on board to lead a discussion on conservation and protections needed for the critically endangered Pacific population to survive. For more information click here: (http://seaturtles.org/article.php?id=2101)
The objective of the Leatherback Watch Program is to build a database of opportunistic sightings with date, time, name of observer, exact GPS coordinates, a photograph or video as evidence of the sighting, weather and behavior details from each sighting. The Leatherback Watch Program was organized and launched during the summer of 2010.
The first year, a single marine biologist reported only one sighting in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. During 2011 the program compiled 23 sightings from California to British Columbia, Canada through outreach to approximately 150 program participants that receive monthly emails, phone calls and connect through the program Facebook page. During 2012 a total of 26 sightings were reported, and currently, 16 leatherback sightings have been reported to the citizen scientists in 2013. View leatherback photos from Leatherback Watch here.
The coalition of businesses, organizations, and individuals that make up the Leatherback Watch Program helped support legislation in 2012 that designated the Pacific leatherback sea turtle as California’s official marine reptile. The passage of the California Marine Reptile Bill in 2012 (AB 1776-Fong sponsored by SeaTurtles.org) designated Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day on October 15 every year and prioritized conservation of this critically endangered sea turtle species. The new state law also calls for increased education and outreach to schools and all Californians about the importance of leatherback sea turtles along our coast.
The Leatherback Watch Program is encouraging people across the state to take the Leatherback Conservation Pledge! (www.seaturtles.org/pledge). By taking the Leatherback Conservation Pledge, Californians to make a promise to take steps to help protect leatherbacks by swearing off seafood with unsustainable sea turtle bycatch, reducing use of plastics and educating others about the leatherbacks that swim the California coast. A new Leatherback Conservation Activity Guide, Facebook page and other free educational materials are now available to download at www.seaturtles.org/plcd.
PACIFIC LEATHERBACK BIOLOGY AND CONSERVATION IN CALIFORNIA
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. Sea turtle biologists using satellite-tracking tags discovered only in the past decade that these leatherbacks migrate here from distant nesting beaches in remote Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and island nations in the Western Pacific. They are most abundant in the summer and fall but have been sighted offshore of California year-round.
Pacific leatherback sea turtles are “living dinosaurs,” having survived 100 million years virtually unchanged. The leatherback is the largest, deepest diving, and fastest swimming of all the seven species of sea turtles in the world. The largest adult leatherback ever recorded grew to nine feet long and weighed over 2,000 lbs.! It is the only sea turtle species with leathery skin and ridges on its back instead of a hard shell. Today, this ancient ocean dweller is critically endangered and at risk of extinction.
Pacific leatherback sea turtles are among the most imperiled of any sea turtle population in any ocean basin on Earth. Their population has declined by approximately 95 percent in the last 25 years. This drastic population decline has resulted primarily from human activities such as capture in fisheries, poaching of eggs and adults, habitat loss, marine plastic pollution and climate change. The leatherback sea turtle was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1970. Increased awareness, education, and conservation policy enforcement is needed to ensure the continued survival of the Pacific leatherback.
In a significant conservation victory, nearly 42,000 square miles of ocean waters along the U.S. West Coast were designated as protected critical habitat under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including 16,910 square miles of California’s coastal waters. Critical habitat designations aid the recovery of endangered and threatened species by protecting habitat that they rely on. The Pacific leatherback critical habitat is an area where leatherbacks feed on jellyfish. Jellyfish are the main food source for all leatherbacks. They eat several hundred pounds of jellies each day when feeding in their critical habitat. Without a safe haven to feed, they could not survive their migration back across the Pacific. This Pacific leatherback critical habitat is the largest protected area for sea turtles in U.S. conservation history.
Pacific leatherbacks have been protected from the California drift gillnet fishery since 2001 with the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area. The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area prohibits drift gillnet fishing between August 15 and November 15 along the California and Oregon coasts from Point Sur to Lincoln City, Oregon, out to the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone.