Stranded On Cape Cod

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle is tended to at the National Marine Life Center in Bourne, Mass. Jan. 30, 2018. Photo by Gaelen Morse / BU News Service

By Gaelen Morse
BU News Service

As tourists head home from their summer vacations in Cape Cod, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles begin to do the same. But not all of them succeed and many end up stranded on the beaches of waterfront towns.

When the water temperature drops in the fall and winter, so does the body temperature of many sea turtles remaining in the area. Their energy plummets. They are left unable to swim or fend for themselves.

This effect, known as cold stunning, places the fate of hundreds of sea turtles in the ocean currents. For some, the effect is fatal. For those who survive stranding, there’s hope that rescue volunteers patrolling local beaches will find them in time.

An increase in stranded turtles

The number of stunned sea turtles found stranded along the Massachusetts’ coastline has been rising since the 1970s, according to records kept by Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

As concerning as that may seem, many marine life experts attribute the high number of stranded turtles to the fact that the nearly decimated populations of some sea turtles, including the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, are on the rise again.

“The reason the numbers are increasing is the conservation practices in Mexico, Texas, along the Gulf coast, and then Florida and the Southeastern U.S.,” said Bob Prescott, director of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. “Virtually all of the populations of turtles that cold stun are increasing because of those conservation measures.”

However, Prescott said he believes other factors may be adding to the number of stranding turtles in Massachusetts, including the impact climate change may have on cold-stunning events.

“The Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod Bay and up along the coast of Maine and up into the Bay of Fundy is the fastest warming body of water on Earth,” Prescott said.

Sea turtles are considered a subtropical species and they often migrate North during the summer to feed. But they cannot survive in cold temperatures, so as the summer ends, they instinctually return South to warmer waters.

As the Gulf of Maine continues to rise in temperature, scientists have speculated that the turtles are traveling further North in pursuit of food sources.

But Cape Cod is a natural trap for sea turtles. In order to return South, they must first head North to escape the current traveling into the bay. If they do enter the bay, it becomes nearly impossible for them to gather enough strength to get out once temperatures start to drop.

The road to recovery

When turtles wash ashore in Massachusetts, a team led by Dr. Charles Innis, director of Animal Health at the New England Aquarium, evaluate their condition and determine where to place them for rehabilitation.

The aquarium has a rehabilitation facility in Quincy and also utilizes local non-profit organizations such as the National Marine Life Center in Bourne, Mass.

The turtles arrive at the facilities with pneumonia as well as shell and bone injuries from hitting rocks and other debris while being tossed around by the surf.

Once rehabilitated, the turtles are transported South to the National Aquarium in Baltimore for a final checkup and then to Florida for release.

But Innis said he does not think cold-stunning or natural predators are bigger threats than humans.

“In my opinion, still the biggest threat to sea turtles globally is interacting with the fishing industry and boating,” he said.

Too many to handle

But those who plan to continue saving Cape Cod turtles may face a new challenge soon: resources.

Kate Sampson, NOAA’s sea turtle stranding coordinator for New England, collects data provided by organizations such as Mass Audubon and the NMLC. While rescue efforts have fared well at volunteer based non-profits, she said she has concerns about the increasing number of stranding turtles.

“If we continue in this trajectory we obviously are going to hit a point where the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary can no longer respond to every turtle out there, the New England Aquarium can no longer do the initial assessment and beginning of stabilization,” Sampson said. “Other rehabilitation facilities throughout the region and beyond will not be able to handle all of the turtles that will need rehabilitation.”

Even though these efforts are no longer integral to preventing the extinction of the species, Jennifer Dittmar of the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue team in Baltimore said the process from rescue to rehabilitation to release has created an interconnected community of sea turtle experts along the East coast who see the work as an important balance to human intrusion in the marine ecosystem.

“The Kemp’s Ridley turtle is still considered to be a critically endangered sea turtle species,” Dittmar said. “We are not at a point where it will be off of the list soon.”

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