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Leatherback Sea Turtle Population Down 80 Pct, Could be Extinct in 20 Years

Update Date: Feb 28, 2013 12:07 AM EST

There has been a steep decline in the leatherback sea turtle nests in the Pacific Ocean, so steep in fact it's almost 80 percent, according to a research team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The population of leatherback sea turtles, the world's largest species of marine turtle, has experienced a decline of 78 percent between 1984 and 2011, the study discovered. The findings were published today in the Ecological Society of America's scientific online journal Ecosphere

"If the decline continues, within 20 years it will be difficult if not impossible for the leatherback to avoid extinction," Thane Wibbels, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), said in a statement. "That means the number of turtles would be so low that the species could not make a comeback."

The study goes on to note that the decline in numbers can be attributed to humans and animals. Villagers and fisherman used to collect turtle eggs by the thousands in Indonesia, before it was officially outlawed in 1993. However, Dogs and pigs still dig up turtle eggs along Bird's Head's beaches, Ricardo Tapilatu, lead study author and a doctoral student at UAB, said in a statement.

"The turtles nesting at Papua Barat, Papua New Guinea, and other islands in our region depend on food resources in waters managed by many other nations for their survival," Ricardo Tapilatu of the State University of Papua Indonesia said. "It is important to protect leatherbacks in these foraging areas so that our nesting beach conservation efforts can be effective."

Seventy-five percent of all leatherback sea turtles lay their eggs at Bird's Head Peninsula in Papua Barat, Indonesia. They weigh up to 2,000 pounds and grow up to more than six feet in length.

Meanwhile, in February 2012, the U.S. government stated that about 42,000 square miles (108,800 square kilometers) of the Pacific Ocean off California, Oregon and Washington is protected territory that area is as critical habitat for leatherbacks.

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