By the Catch

One more word about sea turtles. My favourite. The enormous leatherback. A relic from the era of dinosaurs, keeping the leatherback turtle alive in these modern times is proving a problem. Big beauty. Like the albatross, it too gets stuck in the longline fisheries; drowning and ending up as mostly unrecorded bycatch. To the point where the Pacific leatherback population is almost obsolete, having declined by over 95%.

From a species that lasted one hundred million years, there are only a couple of thousand turtles left in the Pacific. From a conservation perspective, the leatherback guy, Dr. Matthew Witt at the ZSL talk revealed that the Pacific population is already considered gone.

Sorry to depress you. How can you talk about it and sound positive? From writing previous blogs, I’ve already decided animals need to a. Talk with humans, b. Be useful and c. Persuade their researchers to exude endless amounts of charm to survive. The historic leatherback achieving any of these parameters seems well, as likely as me writing a bestseller. I’ll happily eat my words but in the meantime starvation calls.

The leatherback’s advocate, the in-fairness-pretty-charming, West-country sounding Dr. Witt from Exeter University put it into perspective. Just to outline his dedication: before the talk he’d been on a trip to West Africa to attach tracking tags to the turtles’ leathery shell. No glueing it on it turns out for the leatherback – their shells are too soft and matrix-like for the glue to stick. No, the only way to attach a tag to a leatherback is to drill it to the shell. Don’t panic – the animal cruelty ethics were the most stringent of standards – a lady in the audience asked Dr. Witt that question at the end. Do-gooder, I thought dismissively at the lady. I was surprised by his answer.

He seemed to revel in the question and answered the question more enthusiastically than maybe any of the others. So we got it – the tags have passed the anti-cruelty measures.

Exeter University’s part of a team trying to discover as much as they can about the Atlantic leatherback population. Distribution patterns, feeding areas, the overlap of fishing grounds – tracking these sea turtles really is a case of life and death.

But on an evolutionary level, it need not be this way. Dr. Witt explained it in a way that had my BSc. (hons) Zoology degree knock on my brain door again. He reminded us that in ecology animals tend to be split into two groups. You have the r-selected species. Not sure what r stands for… ok, let’s make it up – ‘raring to go’. Raring to go r-selection means having a low sexual maturity age, producing tons of young and a small life-span. In other words, live fast, breed a lot, die young.

Now for the other group: the K-selected species. K is for hmm.. Kareful. Kareful means being slow to mature sexually, having only a few, well-cared for young and a long lifespan. In other words, live slow, breed less often and die late. Sort of the equivalent of the mice vs. whale lifestyle. Which one is more efficient? More satisfying to live? That one is an interesting question.

Here’s the thing though: for the leatherback, with all its thousands of entanglements in long line fisheries, it still has a funny trick up its shell. Hehe. Pardon the pun.

Leatherbacks have both features of these ecological groups. This is because this ancient creature not only lives for an impressively long time (30-45 years in the wild) but it also lays a shitload of eggs. Sorry for the swearing. It’s just an impressive fact. According to Dr. Witt, it lays around a thousand eggs per season. So, if we managed to leave leatherback turtles alone, they would be able to recover all on their own. And there is no topping that one. Thank you my friends.






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