New report finds 'substantial increase' in captures of critically endangered leatherback turtle in Aotearoa waters

Newshub can reveal there's been a "substantial increase" in captures of the critically endangered leatherback turtle by commercial longline fishers in our waters. 

A new report from NIWA, commissioned for the Department of Conservation, said 58 protected turtles were caught in a single year, most of which were the rare leatherback species. It also found recommendations to better monitor the turtles failed to be implemented. 

The leatherback can grow to a weight of more than 700 kilograms and they're graceful, majestic creatures but they're critically endangered. 

A newly released report finds that from 2020 to 2021, 58 sea turtles were pulled in. Ninety percent, or 52 of them, were leatherbacks. The remaining captures were green turtles, which are also endangered. 

"It is shocking and it is disappointing, particularly when we are signatories to a number of international conventions to minimise the impact on protected species," said turtle expert Dan Godoy, Senior Marine Scientist & Operations Manager for Blue Planet Marine.

In 2016, Dr Godoy made a number of recommendations to ensure sea turtles were better monitored. But a new report finds that "to our knowledge little progress has been made on any of these" recommendations. 

"That's what's really disappointing is that the information has been there for some time," Godoy said. 

He told Newshub that any loss of an adult turtle has huge implications for the population which is already under huge strain. He says New Zealand does well-protecting species on land, but when it comes to the marine environment, it’s like it's treated as “out of sight and out of mind.” 

The Government said it's committed to the long-term health of our oceans, and the Minister is considering banning "J" hooks to reduce turtle captures. 

Meanwhile, Fisheries Inshore New Zealand, the main representative body of commercial longline fishers, said the spike in turtle captures is primarily influenced by warming oceans.

Greenpeace Oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper said we've been far too slow to act. 

"I think across the board, the New Zealand Government is not doing enough to protect our oceans from the threat of commercial fishing."

The report estimated that while "most" turtles were released quickly, 14 to 15 of them would later die from their injuries.

The dots on this map indicate leatherback turtle captures in the surface longline fishing sector. 

New report finds 'substantial increase' in captures of critically endangered leatherback turtle in Aotearoa waters

Most are caught in FMA 1, New Zealand's biggest and most popular fishery off the east coast of the North Island. 

The report also highlighted New Zealand's poor record when compared to Hawaii, another sea turtle hotspot. 

Captures of the leatherback turtle in Aotearoa exceed the catch limit set in Hawaii by more than three times. If there are any more than 16 caught in a year, the entire longline fishery is shut down. In New Zealand, no such rule exists.

Normally 17 to 18 are caught by longline vessels annually. Catching more than 50 in a year is a "substantial increase", according to the report. 

"Leatherback turtles are critically endangered - that's pretty much the worst you can get. So that means we should be doing everything in our power to protect them," Hopper said. 

Leatherbacks are regular visitors to our shores - the concern is that government inaction could see them disappear. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry for Primary Industries told Newshub the roll out of cameras on surface longline vessels will help with monitoring of protected species, including turtles. 

The agency said it was involved in research with the University of Florida, which is looking at ways to prevent catching them, and the Department of Conservation is involved in training fishing crew. 

"We also work with the Department of Conservation protected species liaison officers programme. Liaison officers work with vessels to make sure they have release kit and safe handling guides for turtles if they catch them. All vessels are provided with release kits by the government which have equipment for safe release of turtles."