Protected Resources

Leatherback

Rachel O'Shea ©SPC

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea

Stock Assessment / Estimated Breeding Population


Photo: Leatherback making her nest. Canaveral National Sea Shore

The global population of leatherbacks comprises seven biological and geographical subpopulations, which are located in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The subpopulations relevant to the U.S. are the West Pacific, East Pacific, and Northwest Atlantic leatherbacks.

In the Pacific Ocean, Western Pacific leatherbacks feed off the Pacific Coast of North America, and migrate across the Pacific to nest in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Eastern Pacific leatherbacks nest along the Pacific coast of the Americas, primarily in Mexico and Costa Rica with isolated nesting in Panama and Nicaragua, and are found foraging throughout Central America, Mexico, Chile and Peru.

The status of the global leatherback population is variable, increasing in the Atlantic but declining rapidly in the Pacific. In the Eastern Pacific the population has declined by over 90% over the last three decades. In the Western Pacific, Malaysian leatherbacks are essentially extinct. The population declined from about 10,000 nests during the 1950s to only one or two nests per year since 2003. The largest remaining component of the nesting population, which accounts for 75% of the Western Pacific population, occurs in Papua Barat, Indonesia. This population has declined by over 78%, and may only consist of roughly 2,000 nesting females. Additional nesting habitats occur in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

In the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico, however, leatherback populations are generally increasing. The Atlantic coast of Florida is one of the main nesting areas in the continental United States. Data from this area reveals a general upward trend, though with some fluctuation. In the U.S. Caribbean, nesting in Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and the Virgin Islands continues to increase as well, with some shift in nesting between these islands.

Legal Protection

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Under the ESA, the federal government has the responsibility to protect species that are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

CITES is an international agreement designed to ensure that international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild. Leatherback sea turtles throughout their range are listed under Appendix I of CITES. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction and provides the greatest level of protection, including prohibition on commercial trade.

Hawai‘i State Law disclaimer external link

All sea turtles are protected by federal and state law.

Natural History

The leatherback is the largest turtle in the world. They are the only species of sea turtle that lack scales and a hard shell, instead having black rubbery skin. Their carapace has seven ridges running the length of its body that tapers to a blunt point which makes them very hydrodynamic. Their front flippers lack claws and scales and are proportionally longer than in other sea turtles. Both their ridged carapace and their large flippers make the leatherback uniquely equipped for long distance migrations.

Leatherbacks belong to a different taxonomic family than the rest of the sea turtles. They have existed in their current form since the age of the dinosaurs. Leatherbacks are highly migratory, often swimming over 10,000 miles a year between nesting and foraging grounds. They are also accomplished divers with the deepest recorded dive reaching over 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), deeper than most marine mammals.

Leatherbacks lack the crushing chewing plates characteristic of other sea turtles that feed on hard-bodied prey. Instead, they have pointed tooth-like cusps and sharp-edged jaws that are perfectly adapted for a diet of soft-bodied open ocean prey, such as jellyfish and salps. A leatherback's mouth and throat also have backward-pointing spines that help retain gelatinous prey.

Please see NOAA Fisheries Leatherback Turtle Species Profile for more details of their natural history.

Potential Threats

Current Management Issues

On September 20, 2017, NOAA Fisheries received a petition from Blue Water Fishermen’s Association to identify the Northwest Atlantic leatherback sea turtle as a distinct population segment (DPS) and list it as threatened under the ESA. The species is currently listed as endangered throughout its range.

On December 16, 2017, we made a positive 90-day Finding (82 FR 57565), determining that the petitioned action may be warranted. We have initiated a status review of the leatherback sea turtle to determine whether the petitioned action is warranted and to examine the species globally with regard to application of the DPS policy in light of significant new information since the original listing. To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information pertaining to the leatherback sea turtle from any interested party.

Public Comments and Information We Seek on the Leatherback Sea Turtle

A 60-day public comment period on the 90-day finding to identify the Northwest Atlantic leatherback sea turtle as a DPS and list it as threatened under the ESA is open until February 5, 2018. You may submit comments and information via the Federal eRulemaking Portal.

Key Documents

Management Regime

More Information