Leatherback turtles are named for their shell, which is leather-like rather than hard, like other turtles. It’s the biggest of the turtle species with a length of up to 180cm.
They are the largest sea turtle species and also one of the most migratory, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Although their distribution is wide, numbers of leatherback turtles have seriously declined during the last century as a result of intense egg collection and fisheries bycatch. Globally, the leatherback status according to IUCN is listed as Vulnerable, but the subpopulation that roams Guianas’ waters, the North West Atlantic population, has an Endangered Status as of 2019.
Marine turtles are the living representatives of a group of reptiles that has existed on Earth and traveled our seas for the last 100 million years. They are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems.
Leatherback turtles consume large numbers of jellyfish which helps to keep populations of these marine organisms in check. Marine turtles, including leatherbacks, also provide a source of income as a draw for ecotourism, like in Galibi, Suriname and Shell Beach, Guyana.
Atlantic leatherbacks, with their long migrations across the ocean, are at great risk of running into longline fisheries. Leatherbacks feed almost exclusively on jellyfish, making them susceptible to mistakenly swallowing plastic bags floating in the ocean, which can kill them. But also climate change (eroding beaches), off-shore oil and gas development, turtle egg consumption and dog predation of nests are increasing threats to leatherback populations.
In 2018, 56 leatherback turtle nests were counted in Guyana, 719 in Suriname and 815 in French Guiana. This is a decline of 95% compared to the numbers of 2001 in Suriname.
More and more leatherback turtles are accidentally caught in shrimp trawl nets, on longline hooks and in fishing gillnets. Sea turtles need to reach the surface to breathe, and therefore many drown once caught. Known as bycatch, this is a serious threat to leatherback turtles. As fishing activity expands, this threat is more of a problem.
Sea turtles are dependent on beaches for nesting. Sea level rise, uncontrolled coastal development and other human activities have directly destroyed or disturbed sea turtle nesting beaches. Turtle feeding grounds such as seagrass beds are also damaged and destroyed by activities onshore, such as sedimentation from clearing of land and nutrient run-off from agriculture.
Turtle egg consumption
Sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy among certain ethnic groups in the Guianas. Even though the leatherback turtle is a protected species, this unfortunately doesn’t stop poachers from collecting many eggs from Guianas’ nesting beaches.
Off-shore oil and gas development
The discovery of oil in Guyana and Suriname’s waters, brings many threats to life below water. Drilling, oil spills and other pollution put leatherback populations in danger.
Sea levels rising means eroding beaches....
WWF Guianas manages a long-term nesting beach monitoring program, together with the relevant government agencies in the Guianas, to build enforcement capacity through beach patrolling. In addition, prominent Surinamese citizens targeted turtle egg consumption in a year-long awareness campaign. We promote community-based tourism among WWF’s local and international members, provide resources on responsible turtle watching, and hold awareness campaigns to decrease disturbance for the nesting females.
The IUCN red list status for the North West Atlantic leatherback population has been updated in 2019 from “Least Concern” to “Endangered”, because of the rapidly declining population of the leatherback in the region. This was the reason why WWF-Guianas started with a Regional Leatherback action plan program which will assess and find the causes of the decline of the Leatherback population in our region, with the focus on the main nesting beaches and the identify the conservation actions that must be taken throughout the wider Caribbean.