Leatherback Sea Turtle | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Dermochelys coriacea

Also known as

Leatherback, leathery turtle

Distribution

Global oceans; tropical to cold temperate waters

Ecosystem/Habitat

Coastal to open ocean; deep diver

Feeding Habits

Omnivore (mostly feed on jellyfish)

Conservation Status

Endangered

Taxonomy

Order Chelonii (turtles & tortoises); Family Dermochelyidae (leatherback sea turtles)

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Leatherback sea turtles have been swimming around the world’s oceans for more than 90 million years. They are the largest living turtle in the world, growing to more than two meters long and weighing 900 kilograms. Their preferred food is jellyfish, but because they are not very nutritious, each turtle needs to consume enough jellyfish to match its own body weight every day! To help them capture and eat these soft-bodied animals, they have a sharply pointed cusp at the end of their snout for piercing, and backward-pointing spines all the way down their throat to help swallow their slippery prey.

The eggs of leatherback sea turtles have been harvested for centuries by people as a food source, even though it is now illegal to trade them as indicated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There is no targeted fishery for sea turtles in Canadian waters, but there are unintentional interactions observed in many fisheries. Leatherbacks have been caught incidentally as bycatch in pelagic (open ocean) longline fisheries, gillnet fisheries and, rarely, trawl fisheries along Canada’s coasts. There is high mortality of turtles caught in trawl and gillnet fisheries by drowning, however there is high post-release survival of turtles caught by pelagic longline since these fisheries occur closer to the surface of the water and allow the turtles to surface to breath even if they are hooked on a line. 

There are also numerous incidents of turtle entanglements in fishing lines associated with pot and trap fisheries, buoy and anchor lines for other fisheries, and in abandoned ropes and cables at sea. These entanglements can weigh down turtles, making it difficult for them to catch prey, potentially cutting into their skin and causing infection, and even leading to drowning if they cannot surface to breath.