NZ’s Leatherback Turtles - Happy World Turtle Day!

Did you know that NZ has turtles? I always thought that turtles were only in tropical places like the Great Barrier Reef or the Carribean and if they were seen in NZ waters it was because they’d been swept off course. But NZ has 5 species of turtle! They don’t live here all year round but come to feed before heading back to warmer waters to breed.

So let’s celebrate World Turtle Day by shining a light on one of NZ’s most common turtle species and also the biggest - the Leatherback Turtle!

Leatherback turtles are named for their leather-like shell, they’re widespread around NZ going as far south as Fiordland although their favourite feeding grounds are around Northland.

Lots of marine species depend on healthy populations of Leatherback turtles who LOVE eating jellyfish. They are essential to the marine ecosystem because they keep jellyfish numbers in check. Jellyfish eat fish larvae so a reduction in turtle numbers can cause an explosion in jellyfish numbers which reduces fish populations.

Leather back turtle world turtle day

These turtles can dive up to 1200 metres deep in pursuit of jellyfish - making them one of the world’s deepest diving species.

Unfortunately Leatherback turtles critically endangered due to three main reasons:

Habitat Loss

It’s estimated that there has been a 70% reduction in the global population of Leatherback turtles within the last generation. This is mainly due to development and degradation of their nesting beaches.  Coastal development can destroy nesting habitats and beach lighting can confuse turtle hatchlings who rush towards light when they emerge from the sand. Rising sea levels and increasing sand temperatures due to climate change are also playing a part in the decline. 

Marine debris - especially plastic bags and balloons

It’s estimated that 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic waste - because floating plastic bags look like jellyfish, as do balloons. And when turtles eat this rubbish it can make them more buoyant so they can no longer dive in search of food, or to escape from predators.

Fisheries Bycatch

Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles are accidently caught in shrimp trawl nets, on longline hooks and in fishing gillnets. Turtles need to surface to breathe so they can drown if they become entangled in nets. 

All these threats mean that the Pacific populations of Leatherback turtles are still declining but the good news is that in the Atlantic some populations are stable or increasing due to conservation efforts protecting nesting beaches and habitat. Which shows that conservation works!

We got the Leatherbacks into this mess so we’re going to have to get them out and there are lots of ways we help to get Pacific Leatherbacks off the critically endangered list.

How we can turn things around for turtles:

Individually

  • Adopt a turtle to protect and restore their habitat  
  • Report injured or stranded turtles to the DOC emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).
  • Don’t participate in balloon releases and contact balloon release organisers to tell them balloons are lethal to turtles.
  • Use reusable produce bags instead of single-use plastic ones.
  • Choose tropical holiday resorts carefully to make sure they aren’t damaging turtle nesting sites.
  • Choose seafood caught in a way that doesn’t harm or kill turtles.

On a bigger scale

Individual choices matter but to really turn things around for turtles we need big systems changes. Here’s how you can help on a bigger scale.

  • Support organisations that are working to restore turtle populations and habitat
  • Ask government leaders to take action on preventing climate change, plastic pollution and coastal development.

References

https://www.worldturtleday.org/

https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/marine-fish-and-reptiles/sea-turtles/

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/leatherback-turtle

https://www.seeturtles.org/why-are-sea-turtles-important

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/leatherback-turtle

https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-do-sea-turtles-eat-unfortunately-plastic-bags

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/what-can-you-do-save-sea-turtles

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