Collaborating to conserve – international experts convene in attempt to reverse leatherback turtle decline

How do you save a species that ranges across country borders and is under threat from all sides? It is the eternal conservation challenge, and one that is best tackled through partnerships.

It is this sense of strength in numbers that has brought together regional and international experts (including Fauna & Flora International’s Velkiss Gadea and Heydi Salazar) from Chile to the U.S. to form a collaborative conservation network called LaúdOPO, which aims to stabilise and rebuild the Critically Endangered Eastern Pacific subpopulation of leatherback turtles.

Over the last few months, LaúdOPO has held two workshops – funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – covering a variety of topics from improved data sharing to better by-catch monitoring. These workshops help to strengthen regional coordination of conservation actions focused on Eastern Pacific leatherbacks.

The first of these, which was hosted by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), took place on the sidelines of the 36th International Sea Turtle Symposium in early March. In an update following this meeting, Bryan Wallace (Senior Scientist at Abt Associates and coordinator for the Network) reported:

“More than 25 partners from Chile to the US gathered together recently in Lima, Peru, to relaunch an integrated regional effort focused on conservation of Critically Endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles. This effort continues in support of the EP [Eastern Pacific] Leatherback Action Plan released in 2013.”

“The workshop included participants representing governmental and non-governmental sectors from Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and the US.”

“During the workshop, participants worked on establishing a standardised regional platform for sharing data on nesting abundance, hatchling production, by-catch, strandings, and tags used for identification of individual turtles.”

“As the network gains momentum, there is renewed hope that the decline of Eastern Pacific leatherbacks will be reversed in the years to come,” he went on to say.

Lima workshop. Credit: Carlos Salas Fernández / Kutzari.

The first workshop took place in Lima, Perú. Credit: Carlos Salas Fernández / Kutzari.

Generating energy and motivation: FFI’s commitment to collaboration

Leatherback turtles are incredibly wide-ranging and are known to forage as far north and south as the sub-polar latitudes. When it comes to nesting, however, the leatherbacks opt for sandy tropical beaches, with each female coming ashore every four years to lay several clutches of eggs.

In the East Pacific, leatherbacks nest along the coast of Mexico, and Central and South America; however, this subpopulation has experienced a precipitous decline – principally as a result of the illegal harvesting of its eggs and habitat degradation as well as entanglement and drowning in fishing gear (by-catch).

FFI has been helping to conserve sea turtles in Nicaragua for 14 years, working with partners and communities to protect turtle nests from poachers and reduce the demand for turtle eggs through public awareness and education.

But in order to change the fortunes of leatherbacks and other marine turtle species, a joined-up effort is needed across their range. FFI is therefore part of a number of regional initiatives such as LaúdOPO and ICAPO (with the latter focused on Eastern Pacific hawksbills).

A second LaúdOPO workshop, held in Mexico in June, provided training on by-catch assessments, measurement of nest temperatures, and data analyses to support status assessments.

“It’s been fantastic to see the energy and motivation that is being generated within LaúdOPO,” said Velkiss Gadea, who was at the workshop. “The leatherback action plan developed in 2013 sets out ambitious goals for stabilising the Eastern Pacific subpopulation within the next 10 years, and increasing numbers within the next few decades. This will take a lot of hard work and cooperation between the many countries where these animals nest, but together, I believe we can do it.”