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Conservation Through Technology – A New GPS Mapping Project Benefits Both the Leatherback Sea Turtle and Fishermen

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is found on every smartphone and on millions of dashboard-mounted units across the country. It facilitates our journeys throughout our busy lives, getting us where we need to go in a timely fashion. GPS has allowed us to graduate from the age of paper maps and into one charted with technology. And we have discovered another important use for it: GPS is now aiding in the field of conservation, protecting the endangered leatherback turtle, and saving fishermen much financial strife.

Magnificence of the leatherback

Leatherback sea turtles are one of the truly incredible megafauna of the world’s oceans. Weighing in at 2000 lbs and over 7 feet in length, they are the largest sea turtle and one of the largest reptiles on earth, second only to crocodiles. They lack the hard, bony shell that signifies other sea turtles, and instead sport a streamlined leathery shell. Combine that with immense paddle-shaped flippers, and you have a turtle built for speed and long distance migrations. Leatherbacks have been known to migrate 13,000 miles, diving deeper than 3,000 feet along the way!

Unfortunately, this mammoth of the sea is critically endangered. They face innumerable threats from the moment they hatch from their tiny turtle eggs. Finding their way from the sandy beach to the ocean, foraging for food, avoiding the masses of predators, facing the unforgiving currents of the big blue – leatherbacks don’t exactly have it easy. Only about one in a thousand actually make it to adulthood.

Leatherbacks have the greatest global distribution of any reptile. Between this and and their sheer speed, they are  in a tricky situation when it comes to enacting regulations to protect them. If we don’t know where they are, how can we possibly keep humans away from them? It is this fact that prompts scientists to better understand where leatherbacks spend most of their time in order to develop effective conservation methods. This giant sea turtle is extremely vulnerable to meeting an early end as bycatch, or becoming wrapped up in nets and lines and drowning.

These goliaths of the sea undergo fantastic migrations across the world’s oceans, consuming hoards of jellyfish along the way. We’ve known very little about their voyages until we had the power of GPS in our hands. Now we know where to zero in. Biologists have been fitting leatherbacks with satellite tags to track their movements. The tags are either strapped to the turtle, wrapping under the edges of the shell, or simply glued to the top of the shell. The massive turtle pays little attention to the tags, and they eventually rust and fall off. The satellite tags have been tracking the movements and migrations of the leatherbacks, giving us valuable data on their biology.

Using the data gathered from 135 tagged leatherbacks, researchers have determined where  “hotspots”  for leatherback activity are overlapping with longline fisheries. In the past, fishermen in certain areas have had little success in avoiding leatherbacks. The giant turtles come in close to bite at bait and become entangled.  Fishermen do not want leatherbacks as bycatch; it’s certainly not difficult to imagine the damage that a 2000 pound thrashing turtle would cause to fishing gear. Many fishermen have suffered financially because of leatherbacks and other sea turtles. Research has already begun to find ways to deter sea turtle entanglement, such as placing UV lights on fishing nets, but it’s not enough. Scientists are now working with regulators to protect known areas of high leatherback density to fishing, which would not only reduce leatherback bycatch, but would also protect fishermen’s gear from  the wrath of the captured giant reptiles.

A global conservation effort

Since 1980, leatherback sea turtle populations have declined by 90%. The loss of this great sea turtle could have detrimental effects that could reverberate around the entire world. They are an essential link in the web of marine life, keeping populations of jellyfish in check and drawing in ecotourism for coastal communities. Conservation of such species is invaluable. Ecotourism is the lifeblood of so many coastal communities. People travel from all over the world to see the ocean’s fantastic creatures – if these creatures are gone, what do we have left? The beauty of the oceans lies in its connectedness, the interwoven splendor of marine ecosystems. If even one link is missing, the repercussions can be devastating.

Leatherbacks do not just affect ecotourism. Their absence may have another interesting side effect. These massive sea turtles consume an astounding amount of jellyfish during their migrations. One might wonder what would happen to jellyfish populations once a major predator is removed. The number of jellies in our oceans has already been on the rise globally, which is not particularly beneficial for other animals in the ocean. When one species dominates an ecosystem, certain food sources are quickly depleted. Other animals that depend on those sources suffer and the entire system is thrown out of balance.

Using GPS technology is helping protect an endangered species. It is also keeping our oceans in balance, safeguarding ecotourism in many coastal communities, and saving fishermen from much grief and financial strife due to damaged gear. Support conservation by choosing a seafood distributor that cares about the environment, such as Pucci Foods.

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