Feds launch leatherback protections on the Central Coast; conservationists log sightings.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
The leatherback turtle is a rare and cryptic animal that has existed, almost unchanged, since before the dinosaurs. A select group of these resilient reptiles travels trans-Pacific every year to spend their late summers munching swarms of jellies on the Central Coast.
The Leatherback Watch Program, organized by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, has scientists, whale-watchers and recreational boaters from Washington to California keeping a close eye out for the turtles in an effort to better understand and conserve the species.
Though leatherbacks are present in or near Monterey Bay every summer, a large bloom of their favorite food, Pacific sea nettle jellies, drew the giant reptiles in larger numbers than usual this year.
Naturalist Kate Cummings of Blue Ocean Whale Watch in Moss Landing says the seven leatherback sightings she’s reported to the program this season more than doubles what she’s seen in the last two years combined.
“We always relay the position, time of day, sea conditions, and what species of jellies were present,” Cummings says. “Plus, we take photos and try and capture the distinct orange spot on the backs of their heads for identification.”
Marine Biologist Christopher Pincetich and Sea Turtle Restoration Project are on the cusp of realizing the largest critical habitat for sea turtles ever in U.S. waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to finalize habitat plans tailored specifically for leatherback conservation by Nov. 15 of this year.
The habitat includes 46,000 square miles of California coastal waters from Point Arena to Point Vincente – Monterey Bay sits right in the middle – and a 24,500-square-mile marine area from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Oregon’s Umpqua River that would be free of destructive long-line and drift gill-net fishing from Aug. 15 to Nov. 15 every year.
“The Leatherback Watch Program has upticked the awareness, allowing folks to share their observations,” Pincetich says. “Raising public awareness is key in the validation of leatherback protection.”