Fishermen Saving Leatherback Sea Turtles

Captian Rafael Fallas and his crew aboard the fishing vessel “Don Christopher”, based out of Playas del Coco, Costa Rica, have freed three female leatherback sea turtles and one male leatherback this season, all of which were snagged on fishing hooks. The selfless act of marine conservation has cost the captain and crew hours of their own time and money as they wrestled the massive reptiles onboard and untangle their shells and flippers from the fishing lines.

Fishermen struggle to free an entangled leatherback sea turtle (photo: Captain Fallas)

Female leatherbacks can grow up to two meters in length and nest four to five times a season from October to March on the Pacific coast. They lay an average of 80-90 eggs per nest, meaning the time Captain Fallas and his crew took to release the snagged turtles will potentially yield over a thousand hatchlings this nesting season alone.

“Four leatherback turtles hooked in a single year, this is something I haven’t seen in a long time”, said a surprised Fallas, a veteran fisherman of more than 20 years. “Leatherbacks are only rarely caught nowadays, they are almost extinct, which is why we do everything we can to save these endangered animals and release them unharmed”, informed Fallas.

Four adult leatherback turtles represent a significant percentage of the Eastern Tropical Pacific’s leatherback population, which has declined 95% during the last decades, and now face possible extinction in the next 5-30 years if current disruptions to their migratory routes by the fisheries industry and destruction of nesting habitats from beachfront development projects and poachers are not addressed. Captain Fallas’ altruistic act highlights a change in the Costa Rican fishing community’s awareness to protect this species along the Pacific coast.

With its populations devastated by habitat destruction (see posting “Chaos in Costa Rica’s Leatherback National Park” on Sept. 10, 2009) and unsustainable fishing practices, Costa Rican leatherbacks have been the epicenter of marine turtle conservation efforts for over a decade.

Costa Rica’s Pacific leatherbacks swim thousands of kilometers along their migratory routs each year. Their arrival in coastal waters represents the culmination of this arduous journey. Fishermen who take the time to release a snagged leatherback play a crucial role in the species’ survival by ensuring that these animals successfully complete their journeys and nest on Costa Rica’s Pacific beaches.

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