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Harboring Life: Protecting Endangered Sea Turtles that Frequent Maryland Waters

Jun 23, 2015 11:19AM ● By Cate Reynolds
Chesapeake Now: Our regularly featured environmental article series continues with…

Harboring Life: Protecting Endangered Sea Turtles that Frequent Maryland Waters

By Lisa A. Lewis

When a loggerhead sea turtle was found stranded in the water in Ocean City, the situation seemed bleak. The turtle was extremely emaciated, had numerous barnacles on its skin, and could barely swim. The Ocean City Coast Guard and Beach Patrol brought it safely to shore and contacted the National Aquarium Animal Rescue Program. The severely ill turtle was transported to Baltimore, where the health team examined it and started medical treatment. Thanks to the dedication of the National Aquarium staff and volunteers, the loggerhead made a complete recovery in a few months and was released back into the wild. Staff from the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program, who partners with the National Aquarium to coordinate the rehabilitation and release of sea turtles, released it off the coast of North Carolina.

“Sea turtles are fascinating creatures,” says Jennifer Dittmar, manager of animal rescue at the National Aquarium. “They are very resilient and have an amazing capacity to heal when they receive the proper care. Seeing them rehabilitated and released back into their natural habitat is such a great feeling.”

Sea Turtle Strandings in Maryland

Stranding cases like those of the loggerhead sea turtle aren’t isolated incidents. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR), sea turtles are frequent visitors to Maryland waters. Occasionally, they strand on land or in the water due to illness or injury and require human intervention. Stranded turtles may be alive and in distress or dead.

Of the seven species of sea turtles, four are found in Maryland: loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, green, and leatherback. Every year, they migrate to the Chesapeake Bay and the waters off the coast of Maryland when the water is warm, usually in April or May. Since most species feed on marine invertebrates, such as jellyfish, crabs, and whelks, Maryland waters offer an ideal environment to forage for food. They also provide feeding grounds for adult green sea turtles, which are herbivores and eat seagrasses and algae. When it gets cold, the turtles migrate south to warmer water. Migration generally occurs in October, but it varies, depending on the water temperature.

A Critical Need

Sea turtles have stranded for generations, but according to the MD DNR, there was no protocol for the examination and collection of samples from stranded animals until 1990. That year, the Maryland Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program was created. The program is administered by the Maryland DNR Fisheries Service, which responds to dead strandings and operates from the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, and the National Aquarium Animal Rescue Program, which responds to live strandings. (The organizations also assist each other in response to dead and live marine animal strandings.)

The MD DNR and the National Aquarium are members of the Northeast Region Sea Turtle Stranding Network, which includes state agencies and nonprofit organizations from Virginia to Maine. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries serves as the administrative coordinator of the network. All members contribute data to the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN) database, which is used to advance sea turtle research and conservation.

“The stranding network is very important,” says Kate Sampson, sea turtle stranding and disentanglement coordinator, NOAA Fisheries. “Both state agencies and nonprofit groups are involved and work all hours—nights, weekends, holidays. It’s a privilege to be part of the network and work with great people who are dedicated to helping protect sea turtles.”

Threats to Sea Turtles

Sea turtles face many threats—both human related and natural—that can cause serious injury or death. Threats include incidental capture, or “bycatch,” by commercial fisheries, entrapment and possible drowning in trawl nets, entanglement in fishing gear or marine debris (plastic bags, etc.), injuries caused by fishing hooks, trauma inflicted by boat propellers or vessel strikes, ingestion of marine debris, environmental contamination, and disease. Sea turtles are also susceptible to cold stunning, a hypothermic reaction caused by exposure to cold water temperatures. In Maryland, most cases of cold stunning occur in November or December because the turtles haven’t migrated south to warmer water. (It isn’t known why some turtles don’t migrate.)

According to NOAA Fisheries, all species of sea turtles found in the United States are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. So it’s important to analyze all threats to their recovery and conservation and find ways to counteract them, such as establishing commercial fishing regulations and utilizing outreach efforts.

“Public outreach is a critical part of all conservation efforts,” says Cindy P. Driscoll, DVM, director of the Fish & Wildlife Health Program for the Maryland DNR, Cooperative Oxford Laboratory. “It’s important to provide information about the presence of sea turtles in our region, threats to their survival, and ways citizens can help. Through the efforts of the MD DNR, the National Aquarium, and NOAA Fisheries, we hope to instill an appreciation for these animals in Chesapeake Bay residents, especially students, so they can pass it on to the next generation.”

Stranding Response for Live Sea Turtles

When the National Aquarium receives a report of a live sea turtle stranding, the animal rescue team gathers information, including the species (if known), size, condition (sick or injured), and location and accessibility (on land or in the water). Cell phone photos are requested to assess the situation and help determine equipment needs for the response. A first responder(s) then goes to the site, and the turtle is transferred to Baltimore, where veterinarians conduct an examination to determine the cause of illness or injury. Once the turtle’s condition is established, the health team provides medical care. They also make sure the turtle receives adequate stimulation and engages in behaviors that it would in its natural habitat, such as swimming and diving. When the turtle is fully recovered and passes its “exit exam,” meaning it can catch live food and dive properly, a release date is scheduled.

“Releasing the turtle is definitely the best part,” says Dittmar. “In some cases, human impact caused the stranding, so it’s great when we can give sea turtles a second chance at life. Release events are also excellent opportunities for the public because they raise awareness about sea turtle conservation.”

According to Dittmar, the National Aquarium responds to an average of seven to eight live sea turtle strandings in Maryland each year.


Stranding Response for Dead Sea Turtles

When the MD DNR receives a report of a dead sea turtle stranding, the staff follows the same initial procedure as the National Aquarium: collecting information and requesting photos to assess the situation. A first responder(s) goes to the site, and the carcass is either examined there or taken to the lab in Oxford. To determine the cause of death, Driscoll’s team conducts a necropsy (animal autopsy). They take straight line and curved measurements of the turtle’s carapace (top shell), which indicate an approximate age. They also take samples, including skin or muscle, a flipper, stomach contents, and organ tissues. All data collected is entered into the national database and is used to help protect and conserve sea turtles.

“Doing a necropsy and finding the cause of death or learning something new about sea turtles is very rewarding,” Driscoll says. “A necropsy examination provides valuable information about the sea turtle, including health or disease, age, genetics, and diet. It can also help determine whether the death was caused by human impact or natural causes, and these findings can be used to help reduce the number of strandings and deaths.”

According to Driscoll, there is an average of 23 dead sea turtle strandings in Maryland each year.

Future Outlook

NOAA Fisheries, the MD DNR, and the National Aquarium play a major role in the recovery of sea turtles, with the goal of bringing the population back to historic levels.

“Protecting sea turtles for future generations is so important,” Sampson says. “The populations of all four species found in Maryland are slowly increasing. They haven’t been removed from the list of threatened or endangered species yet, but we hope they will be someday. And that’s definitely great news.”


Sea Turtle Species Found in Maryland

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Size: about 100 pounds; 24-28 inches long (adults)
Appearance: grayish-green carapace; pale yellowish plastron
Fun Facts: Adult Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest sea turtles. The species is named after Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman from Florida, who submitted it for identification in 1906.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Size: about 250 pounds on average; three feet long (adults)
Appearance: reddish-brown top shell (carapace); pale yellowish bottom shell (plastron)
Fun Facts: Loggerheads were named for their very large heads. From birth to adulthood, a loggerhead increases its weight more than 6,000 times.

Green Sea Turtle

Size: about 300-350 pounds; three feet long (adults)
Appearance: shades of black, gray, green, brown, and yellow on carapace; yellowish-white plastron
Fun Facts: Green sea turtles are the largest hard-shelled sea turtles, but they have a small head in relation to their size. Unlike other species of sea turtles, adult green sea turtles only eat plants. Their diet is thought to give them their greenish-colored fat, hence the name “green” sea turtle.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Size: up to 2,000 pounds; 6.5 feet long (adults)
Appearance: mostly black shell; pinkish-white belly
Fun Facts: Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles and the only species that don’t have a hard, bony shell. Leatherback sea turtles can dive deeper than 3,900 feet.

Source: NOAA Fisheries


What to Do If You See a Stranded Sea Turtle

Call 1-800-628-9944, the Maryland Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline, to report the stranded sea turtle. Your call will be directed to the appropriate source: the National Aquarium for a live turtle or the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) for a dead turtle. A stranding network responder will contact you directly.

DO NOT touch or handle the sea turtle. All species of sea turtles found in the United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and interacting with them in any way is illegal. Taking dead sea turtle remains, such as their shells, is also prohibited. Violating these laws can result in hefty fines and/or additional penalties. 
Remember: Sea turtles are wild animals—not pets. Stay near the turtle until the stranding network responder returns your phone call.

For more information, visit the following websites:

Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources