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Finding tangled leatherbacks is crucial for their survival

Leatherback sea turtles entangled in old fishing gear are much more likely to survive if they are found quickly, according to a new study led by Dr. Kara Dodge of the New England Aquarium.

The researchers analyzed data collected by entanglement response volunteers for 15 years. The goal was to better understand turtle bycatch and mortality in an effort to advise conservation efforts. 

Overall, 280 turtle entanglements were recorded during the study period, 272 of which were leatherback sea turtles. Most of the turtles had rope wrapped around their heads and front flippers.

The good news is that for the cases with sufficient documentation, the research suggests that 88 percent of the turtles were estimated to have low to moderate risk of death from their injuries. Some of the turtles were equipped with tracking tags, allowing researchers to confirm they were still moving up to years after being entangled. 

“This dataset gave us a unique opportunity to really dig into and understand leatherback turtle entanglement in buoy lines, which is critical to determining how entanglement happens and identifying workable solutions to solve this problem,” said Dr. Dodge, a research scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. 

“Bycatch of endangered species is rarely observed, so this dataset is an incredible testament to all the watchful mariners reporting these events and the disentanglement network consistently collecting high quality data for over 15 years.”

Leatherback sea turtles are the world’s most massive living sea turtles, with some weighing in at over 1,000 pounds. Unfortunately neither size or charisma saves the turtles from entanglement, a fate they share with many other marine creatures. Leatherbacks are the most endangered sea turtles and looking at their problems can help us understand not only how to save them but possibly give insight into saving other creatures as well. 

“Our findings for leatherbacks mirrors what we have seen in whales. They are very likely to become entangled in whatever rope is most available to them. Reducing rope, which is not meant to mean reducing fishing, will be the best strategy for reducing entanglements,” said study co-author Scott Landry from the Center for Coastal Studies, which leads entanglement response efforts in the region and carried out most of the data collection for the study. 

The research is published in the journal Endangered Species Research

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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