The Canadian Sea Turtle Network (CSTN) is a non-profit organization involving scientists, commercial fishermen, and coastal community members that works to conserve endangered sea turtles in Canadian waters and worldwide.
For years, the idea of leatherback turtles in Canada seemed impossible. Scientists knew, of course, that this largest of all sea turtles was sometimes found in Canadian waters, but they were generally certain that those turtles were rare – tropical turtles that had strayed from their traditional migration pattern.
Dr. Sherman Bleakney had a particular interest in leatherbacks sighted and captured by fishermen off Nova Scotia, Canada. In the 1960s, he began collecting information about these animals, and after carefully dissecting them and considering their anatomy, suggested that the turtles were likely regular visitors to Canadian waters. But the science of the day disagreed, and he moved onto other subjects.
Thirty years later, a graduate student called Mike James followed up on Sherman's work. Although there were fewer than 80 turtles ever recorded in Atlantic Canada, more and more leatherbacks were being seen by fishermen in the 1990s. Mike set out to determine how many there might be and why they showed up in Canadian waters.
Fishermen as Partners
Mike followed Sherman’s model of approaching fishermen for help. He visited every fishing wharf in Nova Scotia, talking to fishermen and putting up "Have You Seen This Turtle?" posters in hopes of learning more. During that first summer of fieldwork in 1998, he received more than 170 geo-referenced sightings of leatherbacks from his volunteer fisherman network.
This, combined with Mike’s later research in cooperation with members of the fishing community, proved not just that leatherbacks came to Canadian waters each summer and fall in great numbers to feed on the abundance of jellyfish, but also to identify Canadian waters as critical habitat for Atlantic leatherbacks.
The unique partnership between scientists and fishermen has proved invaluable in the work of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network (CSTN), and remains the backbone of its approach to conserving sea turtles in Canadian waters and internationally.
READ MORE: Gone Turtlin'. Download the SWOT Report– State of the World's Sea Turtles, Vol. IV.
The conservation results of the CSTN's unique partnership have been numerous, including confirming the importance of Canadian waters to Atlantic leatherbacks. Recognizing this fact, the CSTN has built on its relationship with the fishing community in Nova Scotia to become one of the only groups to partner with commercial fishermen to try to solve the problem of sea turtle entanglement in fishing gear.
The group has also contributed new information about the biology of Atlantic leatherbacks such as their diving and migration patterns. Combining satellite telemetry and cutting-edge statistical analyses, CSTN scientists have described environmental cues that determine behavioral changes between feeding and migration in adult leatherbacks.
VIDEO: Watch the movement patterns of tagged leatherbacks off Nova Scotia.
Underscoring the bias in sea turtle research toward nesting beaches, the CSTN was the first research group to describe the behavior of male leatherback turtles. Importantly, its research revealed that male leatherbacks undertake the same long-distance migrations from Canadian feeding areas to Caribbean nesting areas that female leatherbacks do, which means that all adult leatherbacks face similar challenges (e.g. fishing gear, plastic pollution) across the Atlantic Ocean in order to reproduce successfully.
Recently, the CSTN collaborated in a timely study of the magnitude of the threat posed by plastic bags and other plastic debris to leatherback turtles. Leatherbacks are thought to mistakenly eat plastic bags and other floating debris, which resemble their natural prey – jellyfish. More than a third of all leatherbacks examined in the past 40 years had ingested fragments of plastic, which might have contributed to the animals' deaths in several cases. This illustrates the scope of the problem of plastics pollution for leatherbacks and other marine animals.
ARTICLE: There’s a Future in Plastics.
Additionally, the CSTN has helped solve the mystery of the origins of leatherbacks that are seasonally present in Nova Scotia. Using satellite tracking as well as simple identification technology – flipper tags and microchips – the CSTN in collaboration with research groups studying leatherbacks on nesting beaches throughout the Caribbean and northern South America – have been able to learn where leatherbacks found in Canada during the "turtle season" come from.
So far, we know that Canadian turtles nest in Anguilla, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Grenada, Guyana, Panama, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Trinidad, the United States and Venezuela.
Collectively, this research has shown that Canada isn't just an important feeding ground for leatherbacks, but that it is the gathering place for Atlantic turtles from far and wide. This gives the CSTN the chance to study and protect turtles from more countries than perhaps anywhere else.
The CSTN works not only with commercial fishermen, but also in fishing communities. CSTN workers log thousands of miles each year traveling to schools in remote coastal communities to teach students about the importance of leatherbacks and the crucial role their communities play in conserving them.
The CSTN has developed leatherback curriculum for grade school children that stands alone as a teaching unit or is used to supplement one of our classroom visits. And, the CSTN has a particular passion for working with high-school students, spending four classes with them over the course of a month, teaching them not only the biology of leatherbacks, but also engaging them in research simulations and challenging them to think about the intrinsic worth of endangered species in the context of a commercial world.
LEARN MORE: Educational resources
In the coastal communities the CSTN visit, these are the fishers of tomorrow – the next line of defense for the leatherbacks swimming in Canadian waters.