Researchers from NOAA Fisheries Service and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary took to the skies this fall to data on leatherback turtles and other important living marine resources — specifically their numbers and locations — within OCNMS and surrounding waters.
The surveys were conducted using NOAA’s sturdy Twin Otter aircraft, which national marine sanctuaries may also use for living marine resource studies, remote sensing, enforcement, visitor and vessel use surveys, and emergency response.
Researchers recently used NOAA's Twin Otter aircraft to locate and count leatherback turtles within the boundaries and surrounding waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. In addition to the turtles, researches gathered data on jellyfish (the primary food source for leatherbacks), seabirds and marine mammals. Credit: NOAA.
“The NOAA Twin Otter has been stationed on the West Coast to support regional NOAA programs since 2009,” said Matt Pickett, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “It has proved invaluable in creating and encouraging partnerships between researchers and managers in projects like the leatherback survey.”
Spying From the Sky
Throughout September, a team of scientists conducted aerial surveys collecting data on leatherback turtles, jellyfish (their primary food source), seabirds, and marine mammals. The waters of OCNMS and northern Oregon are proposed critical habitat for the leatherbacks, which can grow to more than 6 feet in length and weigh 1,000 pounds. Leatherbacks continue to thrive in Atlantic waters, but not in the Pacific.
"The population in the Pacific has declined dramatically over the last 20 years," said Scott Benson, NMFS principal investigator for Pacific leatherback turtle ecology and assessment. "We're just beginning to learn some things about this animal, even though it’s been on the planet for 70 million years."
The Secret Lives of Leatherbacks
Researchers have long known that leatherback turtles inhabit waters along the Oregon and Washington coasts. So far, information about the species is based on anecdotal evidence derived from drift gillnet fisheries decades ago, limited ship and aircraft surveys, and a few telemetry records (wireless data transfer) that originated from nesting beaches in Papua Barat, Indonesia.
“We won't be able to provide a precise count on the number of turtles along the Northwest Coast until we can repeat the survey over several consecutive years, said Benson. “Replicating the survey over multiple years in various oceanographic conditions will be required to determine leatherback abundance and distribution in this dynamic ecosystem and the variability of their jellyfish prey.”
“Data collected during the West Coast survey will not only inform scientists about leatherbacks, but also help sanctuary scientists and managers monitor long term trends and changes to other critical sanctuary resources,” Pickett said.
A leatherback turtle in the Pacific waters of northern Oregon as seen from the window of NOAA’s Twin Otter plane. Credit: Scott Benson, NOAA.
NOAA scientist Erin LaCasella from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center reviews data during a Twin Otter flight over the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: Scott Benson, NOAA.
A top-flight research team: Twin Otter pilots Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Cabana (center, blue flight suit) and Ens. Tanner Sims (end right, also in blue) join their colleagues from the SWFSC Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program for a group photo: (from left to right) Jeff Seminoff, Scott Benson, Erin LaCasella, Dan Prosperi and Tomo Eguchi. Credit: NOAA.
Source: NOAA World, November 2010
"On West Coast, Using an 'Otter' to Track Turtles and More"
Written by Sarah Marquis, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries