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Research Technical Report

Abundance, distribution, and habitat of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) off California, 1990-2003

Benson, S.R., K.A. Forney, J.T. Harvey, J.V. Carretta, and P.H. Dutton (July 2007)

Fishery Bulletin 105(3):337-347


Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are regularly seen off the U.S. West Coast, where they forage on jellyfish (Scyphomedusae) during summer and fall. Aerial line-transect surveys were conducted in neritic waters (<92 m depth) off central and northern California during 1990-2003, providing the first foraging population estimates for Pacific leatherback turtles. Males and females of about 1.1 to 2.1 m length were observed. Estimated abundance was linked to the Northern Oscillation Index and ranged from 12 (coefficient of variation [CV] = 0.75) in 1995 to 379 (CV=0.23) in 1990, averaging 178 (CV=0.15). Greatest densities were found off central California, where oceanographic retention areas or upwelling shadows created favorable habitat for leatherback turtle prey. Results from independent telemetry studies have linked leather-back turtles off the U.S. West Coast to one of the two largest remaining Pacific breeding populations, at Jamursba Medi, Indonesia. Nearshore waters off California thus represent an important foraging region for the critically endangered Pacific leather-back turtle.