IXTAPA, MEXICO -- November 4 -- WWF awarded a Mexican scientist for twenty years of devotion to leatherback turtle conservation.
Laura Sarti received the award at a conference on North American marine species for establishing four conservation areas along the Pacific coast in Mexico. With WWF support, the nesting project has been extended to protect a total of 60 per cent of leatherback nests along that coast.
In the Pacific, populations of the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) has dropped from 90,000 nesting females in the 1980s to approximately 2,000 today. The Mexican Pacific coast population has been particularly affected. One beach at Playa Mexiquillo in the State of Michoacan once hosted thousands of nesting females. This year, only six females were found nesting there.
Although it is illegal, turtle nest poaching for eggs is a common practice," Sarti said at the WWF-sponsored award ceremony.
"Among the main causes of the leatherback decline are egg extraction, slaughtering of females in nesting beaches, incidental capture by fishing nets and long lines, and intentional capture for the sale of their products."
Leatherback turtles are not only targeted for their eggs and shells, but for their oil, which is used in traditional medicine against respiratory diseases.
Working with the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Sarti has developed a project to protect female leatherbacks and nesting sites, as well as train coastal communities in turtle conservation.
Before the protection programmes were established in priority Mexican nesting beaches, the extraction of eggs was 100%," said Sarti. "Today, egg extraction in those sites has almost disappeared, but we need to work in other areas."
Among the steps to save the leatherback turtle from extinction in the eastern Pacific, Sarti suggests implementing an adequate coastal management programme to guarantee stability of identified priority beaches and protecting the marine area in front of them as a reproductive habitat.
She also recommends training fishermen in fishhook removal techniques, and encouraging them to use newly developed circle hooks instead of "J" hooks, which can be snagged or swallowed by turtles, leading to suffocation or internal bleeding if swallowed.
According to WWF, accidental catch or bycatch is probably the single greatest threat to marine turtles. As many as 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherback turtles are caught annually by commercial long-line tuna, swordfish, and similar fisheries.
WWF already supports the expansion of the circle hook in the Eastern Pacific, with the hope that the technology can be taken up throughout the Pacific.
Educational programs in the surrounding communities as well as awareness campaigns at the national and state level are crucial to teach the public about this problem," Sarti said.
"It is also important to reduce the demand of the leatherbacks eggs and meat in the black market, as well as to stop the development pressures in their habitat.