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Who Coordinates the Sea Turtle Stranding Network?

Kate Sampson treating turtles (Credit NOAA)

GARFO’s Kate Sampson: Saving a Species—One Cold Turtle at a Time

A sea turtle lies motionless on the beach in the howling wind and biting cold. It’s in trouble.  

“Even though they shouldn’t be on frigid Cape Cod beaches in late fall, seeing endangered Kemp’s ridley and threatened loggerhead and green sea turtles has become increasingly common,” says Kate Sampson, NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region’s sea turtle stranding coordinator.

Young sea turtles spend the spring, summer, and fall in the waters off the coasts of Maine to Virginia. These cold-blooded reptiles don’t maintain a specific body temperature. If they get too cold, their bodies can’t function properly. They become lethargic or “cold-stunned.” When water temperatures drop to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, turtles that haven’t migrated south wash up on beaches along Cape Cod, Long Island, and elsewhere in the region. They will die if they aren’t quickly rescued.

Luckily, there is a group of dedicated volunteers throughout the East Coast that walks beaches in all kinds of winter weather. They rescue the stranded turtles and quickly bring them to rehabilitation facilities. They are part of the Sea Turtle Stranding & Disentanglement Network, a group of organizations that care for stranded sea turtles.

Here at GARFO, Kate manages this major effort. For the last three years, we have seen record numbers of cold stunned turtles – roughly 1,300 in 2014, 660 in 2015, and 520 in 2016. Caring for so many ailing sea turtles is an enormous task, and critical to the recovery of these species.

Kate finds rehabilitation space for cold-stunned sea turtles, solves state and Federal permitting issues, locates drivers and pilots to carry turtles to warmer climes, and facilitates communication through the Stranding Network. She finds places for the turtles wherever she can within the network’s rehabilitation facilities. Private citizen pilots generously donate their plane, fuel, and time to fly turtles south, as does the U.S. Coast Guard. The largest transport Kate arranged was a 2014 Coast Guard flight that took 193 turtles to seven different rehab facilities in Florida.

Kate is a marine biologist who came to NOAA Fisheries in 2010. Prior to that, she worked as a Senior Biologist for the New England Aquarium Rescue Program to support stranded sea turtles and marine mammals. She also served as Assistant Director and Stranding Coordinator for the Whale Center of New England. Her experience and dedication makes her a tremendously valuable contributor to the recovery of these threatened and endangered sea turtles.

For more information, email Kate at Kate.Sampson@noaa.gov or call her at 978-282-8470. You can also get additional information about GARFO’s Sea Turtle Program.