Species Profile

Leatherback Sea Turtle Atlantic population

Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
Taxonomy Group: Reptiles
COSEWIC Range: Atlantic Ocean
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: May 2012
COSEWIC Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status Criteria: A2abd+4abd
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: Globally, this species is estimated to have declined by more than 70%. In the Atlantic, this species continues to be impacted by fisheries bycatch, coastal and offshore resource development, marine pollution, poaching of eggs, changes to nesting beaches and climate change. Canadian waters provide an important foraging area for these turtles. There they are threatened by entanglement in longline and fixed fishing gear.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: The species was considered a single unit and designated Endangered in April 1981. Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2001. Split into two populations in May 2012. The Atlantic population was designated Endangered in May 2012.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2003-06-05

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

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Quick Links: | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Description

The Leatherback Sea Turtle is 1 of 7 species of marine turtles in the world. It evolved around 100 million years ago and co-existed with the dinosaurs. The species is named for its characteristic leathery shell, which differs from the bony shells of the other 6 marine turtle species. The shell is shaped like a teardrop with 7 distinct dorsal ridges tapering at the tail. Leatherback Sea Turtles are bluish-black in colour with scattered white blotches and have very large paddle-shaped front flippers. The underside of the turtle, or plastron, is mostly pinkish-white. Each adult has a uniquely patterned “pink spot” on the top of the head, which is believed to play a role in prompting migration by responding to seasonal changes in daylight. The adult Leatherback Sea Turtles that frequent Atlantic Canadian waters have an average curved carapace (shell) length of approximately 1.5 m and an average weight of approximately 400 kg. (Updated 2017/05/16)

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Distribution and Population

The Northwest Atlantic subpopulation of Leatherback Sea Turtles ranges throughout the North Atlantic Ocean, spanning from low latitude nesting beaches to northern foraging areas reaching approximately 50°N. The most recent assessment of this subpopulation, conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), estimated the number of mature individuals to be between 29,000 and 34,000. The trend for this subpopulation appears to be increasing; however, globally, the species is in decline. Over 1,000 Leatherback Sea Turtles are thought to visit Atlantic Canada each year to feed. While in Atlantic Canada, these animals have been recorded in waters as shallow as 2 m and as deep as 5,000 m. The vast majority of sightings occur within the 200-m isobath. (Updated 2017/05/16)

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Habitat

Leatherback Sea Turtles are found in the temperate, subtropical and tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are migratory animals, with adults travelling up to 18,000 km each year between their tropical or subtropical nesting beaches and temperate feeding areas. Atlantic Canada hosts one of the highest densities of foraging Leatherback Sea Turtles in the North Atlantic during the summer, in large part due to a predictable abundance of jellyfish prey. When in Canada, Leatherbacks can be found in coastal, shelf and offshore waters. They spend the majority of their time within the photic zone (the sunlit depths) when foraging; however, the species is capable of diving to much greater depths, mostly within 300 m of the surface. Infrequent deeper dives of up to 1.2 km have also been recorded. (Updated 2017/05/16)

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Biology

Leatherback Sea Turtles spend most of their lives at sea, but adult females come ashore to lay their eggs on tropical or subtropical beaches. Age at sexual maturity is currently uncertain. An adult female can lay between 60 and 90 eggs at a time and may nest up to 10 times a season. Viable eggs begin to hatch following a 2-month incubation period. Due to a variety of factors, including predation, a very small percentage of hatchlings survive their first year. Leatherback Sea Turtles feed primarily on gelatinous organisms such as jellyfish, comb jellies and, to a lesser extent, tunicates. Leatherbacks exhibit several adaptations for their diet, including a sharp-edged beak and backward-pointing spines in the throat and esophagus that likely assist in swallowing slippery prey. In Atlantic Canada, the most common prey is Lion's Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) and, to a lesser extent, Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). Leatherbacks can maintain core body temperatures up to 18°C warmer than the surrounding water, enabling them to survive in water that is much too cold for other marine turtles. It is thought that the large size of Leatherback Sea Turtles, coupled with several physiological and behavioural adaptations, permit them to regulate their body temperature. (Updated 2017/05/16)

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Threats

Anthropogenic threats to Leatherback Sea Turtles include (in no particular order) entanglement, vessel collisions, marine pollution, acoustic disturbance, climate change, poaching, coastal development and artificial light. The threat of highest concern in Atlantic Canadian waters is entanglement in fishing gear, which can cause lethal or sub-lethal injuries to a turtle. Entanglement can also compromise a turtle’s ability to swim, resulting in drowning. Poaching, coastal development and artificial light are not threats in Canadian waters. (Updated 2017/05/16)

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Leatherback Sea Turtle, Atlantic population, is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

121 record(s) found.

Reports on the Progress of Recovery Document Implementation

  • Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for the Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in Atlantic Canada for the Period 2007-2012 (2013-12-20)

    The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the world’s largest and widest-ranging sea turtle. A single species occurs in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean basins. In 1981, it was first designated as Endangeredin Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Its status was confirmed as Endangeredby COSEWIC in 2001 and 2012. The Leatherback Sea Turtle (hereafter referred to as the “Leatherback Turtle”) was listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in June 2003. This document deals with the Atlantic Canada population of this species including individuals occurring off of the coasts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Québec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Leatherback Turtles that nest on tropical and subtropical beaches in the western Atlantic migrate north annually to forage on gelatinous zooplankton (jellyfish) at high latitudes, including Atlantic Canadian waters (James et al. 2005, 2007). Entanglement in fishing gear is considered the primary threat in these northern foraging areas (Atlantic Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006). Other threats in Atlantic Canadian waters include collisions with vessels, marine pollution, and acoustic disturbances. Threats outside Canadian waters include threats to nesting habitat such as: poaching, coastal construction, artificial light, and climate change (Atlantic Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006).

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Leatherback Sea Turtle Dermochelys coriacea Atlantic population Pacific population in Canada (2013-01-03)

    The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of the seven extant species of marine turtles, and is the sole living member of the family Dermochelyidae. The leatherback has a shell covered by a leathery, slightly flexible, fibrous tissue embedded with tiny bones (osteoderms). The carapace is teardrop-shaped and has seven conspicuous longitudinal ridges. It is dark bluish-black, and the carapace, neck, head and front flippers are often covered with white, or bluish-white, blotches. The plastron is pinkish-white. Adults have a distinct pink spot on the top of the head. Please note: Reference information has been updated on pages 11, 34 and 45 (May 2015).

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Leatherback Sea Turtle, Atlantic population (2013-01-03)

    Globally, this species is estimated to have declined by more than 70%. In the Atlantic, this species continues to be impacted by fisheries bycatch, coastal and offshore resource development, marine pollution, poaching of eggs, changes to nesting beaches and climate change. Canadian waters provide an important foraging area for these turtles. There they are threatened by entanglement in longline and fixed fishing gear.

Recovery Strategies

  • Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in Atlantic Canada (2007-02-23)

    The Leatherback turtle is a marine reptile and is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The Species at Risk Act (SARA, Section 37) requires the competent minister to prepare recovery strategies for listed extirpated, endangered or threatened species. The Leatherback turtle was listed as endangered under SARA in June 2003. Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Maritimes Region, led the development of this recovery strategy. The proposed strategy meets SARA requirements in terms of content and process (Sections 39-41).

Action Plans

  • Action plan for the Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in Atlantic Canada (2020-03-20)

    The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) was listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003. This action plan is considered one in a series of documents that are linked and should be taken into consideration together, including the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) Status Report (COSEWIC 2012) and the recovery strategy (Atlantic Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006).

Orders

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2011-2012 (2012-10-05)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to “assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species”. COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (September 1, 2011 to September 30, 2012) from November 21 to 25, 2011 and from April 29 to May 4, 2012. On February 3, 2012, an Emergency Assessment Subcommittee of COSEWIC also assessed the status of the Tri-colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus), the Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), and the Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis). During the current reporting period COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 67 wildlife species. For species already found on Schedule 1 of SARA, the classification of 32 species was reviewed by COSEWIC and the status of the wildlife species was confirmed to be in the same category (extirpated - no longer found in the wild in Canada but occurring elsewhere, endangered, threatened or of special concern). The wildlife species assessment results for the 2011-2012 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 1 Extirpated: 4 Endangered: 29 Threatened: 10 Special Concern: 15 Data Deficient: 2 Not at Risk: 6 Total: 67 Of the 67 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 49 species that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 26 of those species resulted in a confirmation of the same status as the previous assessment (see Table 1a).

Permits and Related Agreements

  • Explanation for issuing licence(#19-PMAR-00021), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2019-06-07)

    A licence has been issued to fish Atlantic halibut and other groundfish for Scientific, Experimental, or Education purposes within the Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area. This activity is part of the annual Halibut Longline Survey which is used to monitor the health of the Atlantic Halibut and other groundfish populations in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. The benthic longline gear used in this survey consists of many baited hooks attached to a mainline, which is anchored to the seafloor at either end. Incidental capture of Leatherback sea turtles, Northern wolffish, Spotted wolffish or White sharks is a possible, but unlikely occurrence.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM04 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM05 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM06 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM07 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM08 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM09 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM14 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO- NL-2565-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-13)

    To collect specimens to be used in educational and interpretive programs that focus on coastal ecosystems, the inshore fishery, and our cultural history. Programs are aimed at increasing ocean awareness and encouraging the development of a stewardship ethic within the general public and the school system. Programs also address current issues such as species at risk, invasive species, and climate change. During educational cruises small numbers (less than 10 of each available species, other than species at risk) of fish, shellfish, and invertebrates will be collected and held in a circulating water touch tank on board. As well, small numbers of available species (other than species at risk) will be held in a touch tank on shore. These individuals will be the subject of educational and interpretive sessions before being released alive. Species will be collected using one or more of the following equipment: 2 crab pots, 2 lobster pots, 2 whelk pots, small 40 ft beach seine, various size plankton nets, handline, small naturalists dredge, and small hand deployed/retrieved conical net.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-18-PNCR-00001), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2018-06-18)

    The activities involve disentangling whales (including North Atlantic Right Whales, Blue Whale, Northern Bottlenose Whale, Beluga Whale, Fin Whale) , Sea Turtles (including Leatherback Sea Turtles and Loggerhead Sea Turtles), Dolphins and Porpoises from fishing gear and lines. The rescue activities include repeated close approaches at sea in small vessels, physically interacting with an individual for the purpose of securing, detangling, re-floating, freeing the individuals from gears, including fishing weirs, using standard protocols. In addition, activities involving dead animals include collection of biological information and the transfer of the animals to a location where necropsies can be conducted. There will be no tissue sample collection from live animals or tagging of live animals.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL- 3234-16 ), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2016-07-01)

    The aim of this study is to quantify the overwintering behaviour and spatial and temporal patterns of estuarine and marine habitat use of co-existing salmonid populations to quantify niche segregation and determine how life history and niche competition may be affected by a changing climate using acoustic and archival telemetry. Non-lethal samples will be collected from Atlantic Salmon, Arctic Char, and Brook Trout for stable isotope analyses to determine feeding behaviour and potential competition for food resources between salmonids. Atlantic Salmon, Arctic Char, and Brook Trout will be captured by a gill-net deployed in the marine environment. The gill-net is pelagic and will not target demersal species. One gill-net will be used and emptied every 20 minutes (or shorter if fish are observed in the net) in coastal areas. Fish will be cut out of the net to prevent harm to tissues and gills. There is a possibility that SARA listed species are captured as bycatch and if so, these will be released immediately. Biological samples will be collected from Atlantic Salmon, Arctic Char, and Brook Trout, and anaesthesia will only be used when necessary (clove oil). Biological samples include: length, scales, adipose and caudal fin clips.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL-2247-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-04-09)

    The Herring Research Gill Net Program is a long running research program conducted by the Pelagic section at DFO, where experienced herring fishers are contracted to conduct a 45 day experimental gill net fishery using nets of 5 different mesh sizes. Herring samples caught are collected and processed by DFO for biological data (age, length frequencies, etc.) that is essential for bi-annual assessments. The impacts on SARA listed species are very low. Fishers keep daily logbooks that include bycatch, recent data shows that SARA listed species are rarely caught. Gill nets are hauled daily, so if SARA listed species are caught the probability of survival is good. Each fisher sets a fleet of 5 gill nets (mesh sizes are 2, 2 ¼, 2 ½, 2 ¾ and 3 inches) in his or her designated fishing area. Nets are fished for 45 consecutive days between April 1 and July 31 and are hauled every day (weather permitting). Herring samples are collected from nets and frozen for later collection by DFO staff, excess herring is kept by fishers to be used as personal bait. Fishers keep daily logbooks of catch composition and bycatch is released/discarded.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL-2249-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-03-21)

    The objective of the sampling would be to determine if there are measurable impacts caused by the introduction of fish farming, negative or positive, on the commercial species (Snow crab Chionoecetes opilio and American lobster Homarus americanus) currently harvested in Connaigre Bay. Specific project objectives are 1) to provide an analysis and review of the data collected to determine the level of impact of finfish aquaculture on commercial fisheries and provide appropriate recommendations and 2) to determine the potential overlap between commercial fishing activities, sensitive lobster and snow crab habitats and finfish aquaculture activities. Sampling: Standard abundance surveys will be conducted by a trained technician onboard a chartered fishing vessel arranged by the FFAW. Snow crab: The survey will take place in Connaigre Bay in crab management area. Snow crab abundance surveys will be completed using a combination of small (1") and large mesh (5.25") traps. At each station 6 fleets consisting of 3 large mesh and 3 small mesh crab traps will be alternately placed every 30 m, baited (3 lbs of squid/skiver), set and allowed to soak for 24 hours. Sampling will include determination of sex, carapace width, shell condition, chela allometry for males, maturity for females and, if mature, egg clutch fullness and viability. Snow crabs will be released back at or near sampling location, immediately after measurements are taken. American lobster: The survey will take place in Connaigre Bay in lobster fishing area 11. Lobster abundance surveys will be completed using combination of modified (vent blocked) and unmodified traps. At each of the 7 survey locations, 10 traps will be baited (2 lbs herring/skiver), set and allowed to soak for 24 hours. Sampling will include determination of sex, carapace length, shell condition and presence/absence of egg clutch. Lobster will be released back at or near sampling location, immediately after measurements are taken.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL-2253-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-05-20)

    Educational - give visitors insight into the hook and line fishery through demonstration of fishing techniques.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL-2255-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-04-15)

    To conduct fish sampling for multi-disciplinary research in the Northwest Atlantic ecosystem. This is research is part of the research for the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research of the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland.  Acoustic-trawl survey methods to be employed (transects).  Biological sampling and tagging of cod re: length, weights, otoliths, stomachs, tissue samples for isotope study, and fin clips for genetic study, and fecundity samples.  Biological sampling of plankton and pelagics, haddock, pollock, silver hake, redfish and incidental bycatch for ecosystem research. Tagging studies are intended to increase understanding of the migrations and behaviour of large cod.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL-2349-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-05-08)

    The purpose of this research is to better understand life history characteristics of wolffish, particularly the seasonal movement and migration patterns. This information could enable improved protection strategies for these SARA-listed species. To continue to improve our ability to collect wolffish specimens, we want to employ a variety of field collection techniques on an opportunistic basis, including baited pots, hand lines, and scuba. Upon capture, we will use external and internal acoustic tags to study the movement pattern of wolffish. The project design is similar to an existing Atlantic cod study for which extensive arrays of acoustic receivers are currently deployed to detect acoustic tags. With the availability of these receivers, this study will involve tagging wolffish in the vicinity of the existing acoustic receiver network.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-NL-2357-14), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-07-21)

    To catch and release specimens for use in educational and interpretive programs that focus on coastal ecosystems, the inshore fishery, and our cultural history. Programs are aimed at increasing ocean awareness and encouraging the development of a stewardship ethic within the general public and school system. Programs also address current issues such as species at risk, invasive species, and climate change. During educational cruises, small numbers (less than 10 of each available species, other than species at risk) of fish, shellfish, and invertebrates will be collected and held in a circulating water touch tank on board. As well, small numbers of available species (other than species at risk) will be held in a touch tank on shore. These individuals will be the subject of educational and interpretive sessions before being released alive. Species will be collected using one or more of the following equipment: 2 crab pots, 2 lobster pots, 2 whelk pots, 2 cod pots, small 40 ft. beach seine, various size plankton nets, handline, small naturalists dredge, and a small hand deployed/retrieved conical net.
  • >> See more Permits and Related Agreements documents

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Recovery Document Posting Plan - Fisheries and Oceans Canada - Fiscal Year 2016-2017 (2018-09-28)

    Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the competent Minister(s) must prepare a recovery strategy within one year of listing a species on Schedule 1 of SARA as endangered and within two years of listing a species as extirpated or threatened. A management plan must be prepared within three years for a species listed as special concern. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is accountable for 111 of the 518 species listed under SARA. As of February 2016, proposed recovery strategies, management plans and action plans for 57 of those species have not yet been posted to the Species at Risk Public Registry. An additional 23 aquatic species have proposed management or action plans coming due in the future. The following outlines the Department’s plan for posting proposed documents for 64 species on the Species at Risk Public Registry. The Department has a plan to post recovery strategies for 9 species, management plans for 13 species, and action plans for 42 species over the next year. Original publication of the Recovery Document Posting Plan: 2016-05-02
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