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HEALTH AS A CONSERVATION TOOL

Sea Turtle Health Investigations

Free-swimming leatherback sea turtle in Monterey Bay, California. Photo credit: Heather Harris

Free-swimming leatherback sea turtle in Monterey Bay, California. Photo credit: Heather Harris

VISION

Health can serve as a powerful conservation tool that directly connects humans with wildlife and our shared environment. Sea turtles may serve as excellent sentinels for ocean health as they are exposed to numerous threats during their vast migrations through international waters. Investigating the health of endangered and declining sea turtle populations along the California coast provides valuable data for population management and recovery and also has important implications for human health where people still eat sea turtle eggs and meat.

PROJECTS

CONTAMINANTS AND BODY CONDITION IN LEATHERBACK SEA TURTLES FROM PACIFIC AND ATLANTIC FORAGING GROUNDS

Critically endangered leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) swim thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean from remote nesting beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands to feed on seasonally abundant jellies off the coast of California. Similarly, in distant waters of the Canadian North Atlantic, leatherbacks travel long distances from nesting beaches in the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean Ocean to feast on jellies in productive temperate waters. These enormous marine reptiles are exposed to a variety of persistent organic pollutants such as pesticides and industrial compounds that likely differ between ocean basins. By joining forces with scientists from the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Canadian Sea Turtle Network, and Project Leatherback Inc., we hope to shed light on the dynamic relationship between fluctuating contaminant levels and changing body condition to help facilitate global health comparisons between declining Pacific and increasing Atlantic leatherback  populations.

Dr. Heather Harris performing ultrasound on  a nesting leatherback sea turtle, Juno Beach, FL in collaboration with Project Leatherback Inc. / Loggerhead Marinelife Center (FWC permit #157).

Dr. Heather Harris performing ultrasound to quantify the body condition of a nesting leatherback sea turtle from Juno Beach, FL in collaboration with Project Leatherback Inc. / Loggerhead Marinelife Center (FWC permit #157).

 

SEA TURTLE MORTALITY INVESTIGATIONS, CALIFORNIA COAST

Conducting systematic necropsies (postmortem examinations) of dead stranded sea turtles is critical to identify and characterize the threats to turtles off our coast. All four sea turtle species that occur along the coast of California are endangered: green turtles (Chelonia mydas), olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). The relatively small number of stranded sea turtles recovered in California means that each case represents an important window into the health of these endangered populations. Necropsies also provide valuable hands-on training and research opportunities for collaborating scientists, students, and members of the California stranding network to learn more about these fascinating  marine reptiles.

 

Necropsy of dead stranded leatherback sea turtle, with collaborators from NOAA Fisheries, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, and Moss Landing Marine Labs.

Necropsy of a leatherback sea turtle that stranded dead in Monterey Bay, with collaborators from NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. This turtle was originally tagged on the nesting beach in Papua, Indonesia and is the first leatherback with a known reproductive history to strand on the U.S. west coast.

 

 

Dead stranded eastern Pacific green turtle from Monterey Bay, California with intussusception secondary to plastic ingestion.

Dead stranded eastern Pacific green turtle from Monterey Bay, California with intestinal intussusception secondary to plastic ingestion.

Plastic debris and monofilament recovered from the gastrointestinal tract.

Plastic debris and monofilament recovered from the gastrointestinal tract.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLLABORATORS

  • NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center
  • NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • University of California, Santa Cruz
  • University of California, Davis
  • Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
  • Canadian Sea Turtle Network
  • University of Florida, Gainesville
  • Project Leatherback Inc.

FUNDERS

  • NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center
  • NOAA Oceans and Human Health Initiative
  • Oiled Wildlife Care Network
  • Private DonationsDSC00740

PROJECT LEADER CONTACT

Heather Harris

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