When Oceana first began its work to protect critically endangered Pacific leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast, we had no idea that these prehistoric turtles would eventually provide a global link to connect us to conservationists half way across the planet.
Some of the biggest mysteries of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle have only recently been unlocked. Only in the last 10 years, scientists discovered that the Pacific leatherbacks found off California’s coast actually nest 6,000 miles away on remote beaches off Indonesia, and that California’s abundant coastline is one of the turtles’ major feeding grounds in the Pacific. With this information at hand, Oceana spent five years fighting to protect habitat critical to the survival and recovery of leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast. We began by submitting a petition to the federal government in 2007 to designate critical habitat in ocean waters encompassing the species’ newly identified foraging grounds. In January 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated 41,914 square miles of ocean waters off California, Oregon, and Washington as critical habitat for the leatherback under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This means that any federally permitted activity will undergo increased scrutiny by the government, and the public, to make sure activities don’t impact the turtles and their habitat. But ultimately we realized for this international species—that transits many Pacific nations’ waters—protecting leatherbacks in U.S. waters alone wouldn’t be enough to bring them back from the brink of extinction. So we didn’t stop there.
With this population of Pacific leatherbacks having declined more than 85 percent since the 1980’s, and the turtles at the remaining two main nesting beaches in Indonesia in serious trouble, we knew more needed to be done to ensure their survival. To create the necessary connection between conservation measures in the U.S. and those taking place in Indonesia, Oceana convened an International Summit in Monterey, California to link the two regions critical to the leatherback’s life cycle.
In coordination with the first Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day in California on October 15, 2013, Oceana formed an international steering committee of scientists and government leaders from California and Papua, Indonesia that organized and raised funds to host a delegation of over a dozen Indonesian elected officials as well as conservation groups in Monterey. In total, over 50 U.S. and Indonesian leaders convened for three days to determine how to best share information and resources to address threats both on nesting beaches and in the ocean in an effort to increase chances for survival of Pacific leatherbacks.
Getting representatives from California and Tambrauw Indonesia (the local government) together in person was no easy task, but it was a critical step in laying the foundation for a meaningful international partnership to curb the decline of the leatherback population. This Summit builds upon the recent success of California Assembly Bill 1776 signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, which made the Pacific leatherback the state’s marine reptile, declared a Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day, and encouraged international cooperation with the Western Pacific Island nations like Indonesia.
And so, with diverse California representation and a delegation of 16 Indonesians, the first day of the Summit commenced in a conference room overlooking Monterey Bay, one of the habitats where leatherbacks forage. The schedule for the first day included a series of presentations from a range of experts. Attendees received a special presentation from the Bupati Tambrauw (the local government elected leader of the region in Indonesia where the leatherbacks nest), who discussed actions Indonesia is already taking to protect nesting beaches, and ways that current conservation efforts could be strengthened. The Tambrauw region is made up of 84 different villages and the Bupati shared the ecological and cultural significance of this giant turtle to the people of Indonesia, which they have honored for generations.
On the second day, Summit participants worked on the details of a new international Memorandum of Agreement expected to be signed by Indonesia, California, and the U.S. federal government in the coming months to make the partnership official.
On a clear and beautiful afternoon, governments, schools, and ocean protection organizations came together for an official press conference. At this time, leaders from both nations signed a symbolic declaration acknowledging the intent of the new regional partnership. Educators from both sides of the Pacific exchanged books, gifts, and postcards written by students that are now connected across the Pacific by their appreciation of the shared leatherback sea turtles. One of the highlights was introducing the author of AB 1776, Assemblymember Paul Fong to the elected leaders from Tambrauw Indonesia. During the press conference, the Bupati shared, “I didn’t know that Californians cared about leatherback turtles, so coming here to realize that the people of Tambrauw were not the only ones made me happy.”
In a celebratory conclusion to the Summit, participants spent the next morning on a whale watching vessel touring leatherback foraging areas in Monterey Bay. Sea nettle jellyfish abounded, as the Bay showcased the favored food of leatherbacks. While we didn’t spot any leatherbacks on this excursion, we were enthralled with a magical display as dozens of graceful humpback whales surfaced and dove through pods of hundreds of California sea lions while an array of seabird species flew overhead; all feasting on the abundant marine life at the head of the deep Monterey submarine canyon.
As lead organizer and convener of the event, Oceana was excited to see the vision come to fruition after months of planning with support from organizations and individuals that made this effort possible. With all the participants having returned home, the real work begins to improve coordination of conservation efforts. Oceana is now working to establish a Sister Sanctuary agreement between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Abun Marine Protected Area in Indonesia where Pacific leatherbacks nest.
We also hope to expand the international partnership to include other Pacific nations that host foraging grounds for the Indonesian nesting population, such as Australia and the Philippines. Overall, saving leatherbacks will require a concerted international effort connecting the nesting beaches, migration routes, and foraging grounds. To this end, the new California-Indonesia partnership formalized in Monterey last month strengthened the momentum to ensure a future for Pacific leatherbacks.