The number of western Pacific leatherback sea turtles in the foraging population on the coast of California has decreased by 80% in the past 30 years. This unique type of sea turtle dates back to the days of dinosaurs. The species was first documented on the beaches of California 40 years ago, when scientists noticed that these sea turtles, known to live in Central and South America, were among those washing ashore.

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Scientists later discovered that these turtles are a subset of leatherbacks that hatch on the beaches in Indonesia, Pupa New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. These sea turtles were migrating over 7,000 miles across the Pacific to the U.S. in search of jellyfish, then swimming back.

Related: Sea turtles thrive on empty beaches during COVID-19 lockdowns

Research now shows that their numbers have dropped by 80% in California with a decrease at the rate of 5.6% per year. According to Scott Benson, co-author of the study and an ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the occurrence of these turtles on the West Coast is in itself amazing.

“There are birds that go farther, but they fly. There’s a whale shark that might swim a little further, but it doesn’t have to come up for air,” Benson said. “This animal is actually pushing water all the way across the Pacific Ocean.”

While scientists are just starting to understand how these amazing turtles operate, they are disappearing. Of more concern is the fact that these sea turtles are disappearing in multiple locations. According to the study, the figures recorded on the U.S. West Coast are similar to those recorded on nesting beaches around the world.

“If you find the decline in one place, that might have a number of causes, but if you find the same estimate of decline in two places, that indicates something much more serious,” said Daniel Pauly, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia. Pauly was not involved in the study.

In 2015, NOAA started an initiative to save the disappearing sea turtles and is currently updating its action plan to inspire international cooperation.

“There is an opportunity right now to stop the decline, but we must seize that opportunity immediately and that will require an international effort by all the nations this animal interacts with,” Benson said. “If nothing is done to reverse this course, this population will become, essentially, extinct in the Pacific Ocean.”

Via Washington Post

Image via Alastair Rae