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What to do if you see a sea turtle in trouble

Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Residents and visitors to the northeast region (Maine to Virginia) may be surprised to discover that it is home to four sea turtle species in the spring, summer and fall. Three of these species, the green, Kemp’s ridley, and loggerhead, are hard-shelled sea turtles, meaning their shells are made up of large bony plates covered with keratin (the same protein in hair and fingernails). In contrast, the leatherback sea turtle has a shell that is made up of small bones fitted together like puzzle pieces, covered with leathery skin. 

Sea Turtles Are Protected

All sea turtle species in U.S. waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sea turtle populations are reduced from historical numbers for many reasons such as hunting and egg harvesting, alteration of nesting habitat, vessel strikes, and capture in fishing gear. NOAA Fisheries is working to reduce threats in U.S. waters to help conserve and recover sea turtles.    

Watch Out for Sea Turtles

In our waters, sea turtles are at risk of injury or death from vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear, mooring lines or marine debris. These risks can be reduced with a little care. Boaters can help by keeping watch for sea turtles at the surface of the water during the spring, summer and fall. Sea turtles are very difficult to see at the surface. But here are a few tips for spotting them. For hard-shelled turtles, pay particular attention when in coastal areas from Massachusetts south to Virginia. For leatherback sea turtles, watch for the presence of jellyfish at the surface. Where there are jellies there are often leatherbacks.  Sea turtles do not always move out of the way of oncoming vessels in time. But, if you slow down and keep a lookout, you can help us reduce the risk of vessel collisions.

You Can Help by Reporting Sea Turtles in Distress

Entangled turtles need immediate assistance. If you encounter an entangled sea turtle, please call the NOAA Marine Animal Hotline at: 1-866-755-NOAA (6622). NOAA Fisheries works with the Sea Turtle Disentanglement Network, which is made up of dedicated, trained responders (find a responder in your area: https://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/stranding/) who can safely disentangle the turtle. Entanglements can be complex and turtles, especially leatherbacks, can be difficult to work with safely. If you are not properly trained and you try to disentangle a turtle, you could be injured, and you could even make the entanglement worse. Any line or netting left on the animal can contribute to the turtle’s serious injury or death over time. For instance, cutting a turtle free of anchoring gear may still leave the turtle with a life-threatening entanglement and actually make it harder to relocate the turtle. The turtle would be free swimming and potentially cover a great distance before responders arrive. 

The best way to help an entangled turtle is to immediately report it to the NOAA Fisheries hotline and stand by at a safe distance until responders arrive, so you can help them more easily find the turtle.  Let the experts--the Disentanglement Network--use their training, experience, and specialized tools to help the turtle, freeing it of all entangling gear and providing it with medical care, if necessary. You can make a difference by reporting sea turtles in distress!

If you missed our Tweet Chat on Sea Turtles with Kate Sampson, NOAA Fisheries Sea Turtle Stranding and Disentanglement Coordinator click here to catch up on the conversation.  We posted highlights!