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America’s Hottest Species: Endangered Leatherback

New Climate Change Report Names Leatherback Sea Turtle Among Top 10 Species Most Threatened by Global Warming

The endangered Pacific leatherback that swims 6,000 miles across the ocean to dive for jellyfish along the U. S. West Coast has been named one of America’s top ten endangered wildlife, birds, fish and plants most threatened by global warming in a new report released today.  The report, America’s Hottest Species, explains how changing climate is increasing the risk of extinction for 10 species on the brink of disappearing forever. See the report.

“Climate change is a triple whammy for all sea turtles due to loss of nesting beaches, overproduction of female hatchlings from hot sand and changes to ocean currents,” said Teri Shore, Program Director for Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) in Forest Knolls, CA. TIRN is a member of the Endangered Species Coalition that released the report in advance of Climate Change talks in Copenhagen next week.  “With the Pacific leatherback already on the brink of extinction, global warming could take the final toll.”

The highlighted species are: 1. Kaua’i Creeper or Akikiki 2. Elkhorn Coral 3. Bull Trout 4. Canada Lynx 5 Pacific Salmon 6. Leatherback Sea Turtle 7. Grizzly Bear 8. Bog Turtle 9. Western Prairie Fringed Orchid 10 Flatwoods Salamander plus activist’s choice 11. Polar Bear.

The report urges the U. S. Congress and President Obama to adopt strong national climate change legislation and to negotiate significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions at the United Nations in Copenhagen next week to prevent extinctions.

Climate Change Threats to Pacific Leatherbacks

Changing ocean conditions are threatening Pacific leatherback nesting populations that have declined by 90 percent over the past two decades primarily due to accidental capture on longline fishing hooks for swordfish and tuna and the destruction of nesting beaches. Numbering over 100,000 nesting females as recently as the early 1980s, Western Pacific leatherbacks that nest in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have diminished to between 2,000 and 5,700 nesting females. The report states that:

  • Warmer-than-usual waters of El Nino years significantly reduce oceanic productivity by inhibiting the mixing of surface water with deeper, cold waters, resulting in less available food near the surface and reducing the reproductive potential of leatherbacks and other marine species.
  • Global climate change threatens reproduction on nesting beaches throughout the leatherback’s range. The sex of a developing leatherback or any sea turtle embryo is dependent on the temperature of incubation in the nest, with warmer temperatures producing females and cooler temperatures producing males. Warmer beaches initially will produce more female offspring, to the detriment of the production of males; hot beaches ultimately will be lethal to embryos. Seasonal variation in rainfall and drought will alter incubation conditions and increase embryo losses.
  •  Other effects of climate change include increased numbers of hurricanes and severe storms, associated beach erosion, nest loss and the destruction of nesting habitat.
  • Changing marine temperatures are expected to continue to alter the range of leatherbacks. In the last 17 years, leatherbacks have expanded their range in the North Atlantic by 250 miles.

In Costa Rica where scientists estimate that sea levels have already risen by 6 to 10 centimeters since 1980, Eastern Pacific Leatherback sea turtles are losing critical nesting habitat. If the beach continues to shrink, the heat and lack of space could contribute to the extinction of the species.  Instead of protecting leatherback nesting beaches against development in places such as Las Baulas National Park, President Arias is calling for a weakening of protections in critical dune habitat to allow for building of homes and lodging.
Last week, an olive ridley sea turtle washed up along the California coast at Stinson Beach near San Francisco – a possible sign that warming oceans are bringing sea turtles further north.
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