Leatherback Sea Turtles: Ocean Wanderers at Risk
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Environmental Defense Fund
June 2009

Of seven living sea turtle species in the world, leatherbacks are the largest, with one individual measured at more than 9 feet long and weighing nearly a ton. It is the only sea turtle species that lacks a hard, bony shell.


Leatherbacks have the broadest range of any sea turtle and can be found in the tropical and temperate waters of the world's oceans.

Global Warming Threats

Leatherbacks were listed as endangered in 1970 and confront multiple threats from humans, from unintentionally being caught in fishing nets to intentionally being harvested for meat. Their estimated numbers are down to 26,000 – 43,000 nesting females, a dramatic decline from the 115,000 estimated in 1980.

Climate change presents the already endangered species with a new quadruple threat:

1. Sea level rise from melting glaciers and warmer, expanding ocean water threatens to inundate beaches where leatherbacks and other sea turtles dig their nests.

2. Stronger tropical storms fueled by warmer seas may destroy leatherbacks’ exposed nesting beaches and damage nests. Leatherbacks' nesting grounds could be further disturbed as humans respond to greater storm threats with beach armoring and new sea walls.

3. Sea turtle reproduction is extremely temperature sensitive. Higher air and sand temperatures can lead to fewer eggs hatching and more embryos developing into females, especially when nest temperatures exceed 29 degrees Celsius.

4. The predicted change in ocean currents brought about by global warming is another significant threat. Leatherback turtles and their hatchlings use these currents to travel and follow their drifting jellyfish prey.

Wider Implications

Leatherbacks are global open ocean wanderers, which means they encounter every one of the many problems now facing the oceans. Declining sea turtle numbers are also possibly responsible for a population explosion of jellyfish, the leatherbacks’ principal diet.

Other Sea Turtles at Risk

All sea turtles are vulnerable to hotter air and sand temperatures, changing ocean currents, changing food sources, sea level rise and stronger storms caused by warmer seas.

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