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High Number of Sea Turtle Strandings Keeps Northeast Region Stranding Network Busy

Each year when autumn rolls around, sea turtles tend to strand along the Northeast coast as a result of “cold stunning.”  It has been an extraordinarily busy sea turtle stranding season, with a running total of  over 200 reported strandings so far from Massachusetts to New York.   

Kemp's Ridley on beach. Photo credit: NOAA/NERO/Kate Sampson

NOAA Fisheries’ stranding networkpartner, the New England Aquarium, has been working hard to treat close to 200 Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and green sea turtles that have been brought into their facility.  Under the Federal Endangered Species Act, Kemp's ridley are listed as endangered and both loggerhead and green sea turtles are listed as threatened. According to aquarium staff, they have treated an unusually high number of loggerhead sea turtles this year. Responders from Massachusetts Audubon at Wellfleet Bayengaged in a heroic effort to collect all of the Massachusetts turtles and transport live animals up to the Aquarium.  NOAA Fisheries has been helping by coordinating transports of turtles to other facilities. Other partners that have been assisting the Aquarium by agreeing to house and care for some of the animals include the National Marine Life Centerin Buzzards Bay, Mass., the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Centerin Biddeford, Maine, the National Aquariumin Baltimore, Md., the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Centerin Virginia Beach, Va. and the Georgia Sea Turtle Centerin Jekyll Island, Ga.   On Friday, December 7, 2012, 35 sea turtles -- 20 endangered Kemp's ridley and 15 threatened loggerheads were airlifted by the U.S. Coast Guard from Cape Cod to Florida to be treated by several facilities around the state.  To read more about this click here. 

Sea turtles airlifted to FloridaFive aquariums and wildlife recovery facilities including Sea World, offloaded 35 endangered sea turtles from a Coast Guard C-130J in Orlando, Fla., that originated from Cape Cod, Mass., Dec. 7, 2012.  Photo credit:     U.S. Coast Guard/Sarah B. Foster

In New York, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservationis caring for 11 animals that have stranded on Long Island. The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center is currently caring for one kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

"Thanks to all our stranding network members for their commitment and tireless work over the past several weeks," said John Bullard, region administrator, Northeast, NOAA Fisheries.  "Thanks especially to the New England Aquarium and Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for responding to the majority of the strandings, which occurred in Massachusetts, and all our other network members that are treating turtles recovered in their areas or that have taken animals from Massachusetts to help out. We also appreciate the U.S. Coast Guard's recent assistance to transport 35 animals from Massachusetts to Florida in early December.” 

Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo credit: Marco Giuliano

What's "cold stunning?"

Sea turtles are commonly found in waters off the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. during the summer and early fall. They typically begin to migrate south by late October because they are cold-blooded and depend on external sources of heat to determine their body temperature. In cold water, they do not have the ability to warm themselves, and must instead migrate to warmer waters.

Dr. Charles Innis, New England Aquarium head veterinarian, listens for a heartbeat on a newly admitted 60 pound,sub-adult loggerhead sea turtle. Turtles with temperature in low to mid 40's can have a heartbeat as low as one beat per minute and still be re-warmed. Photo credit: New England Aquarium

However, some turtles may be foraging in shallow bays and inlets and don’t always migrate south prior to the drop in water temperatures.  These animals may be subject to “cold stunning” because the temperatures in these areas can drop quite rapidly and unexpectedly.  The term “cold stunning” refers to the hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures. Initial symptoms include a decreased heart rate, decreased circulation, and lethargy, followed by shock, pneumonia and possibly death.

In a typical year between 50 and 200 sea turtles are expected to cold stun in Massachusetts from late October through December. In addition to Massachusetts, New York, specifically Long Island beaches, also see a lower number of cold stunned turtles each winter.

For reporting sea turtles in Massachusetts, south of Boston, including Cape Cod or the islands, people should call Massachusetts Audubon at Wellfleet Bay: 508-349-2615.  For reporting sea turtles in New York., please contact the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and  Preservation: 631-369-9829.

For more on the NOAA Fisheries Sea Turtle Program in the Northeast click here.