Sea turtles—air breathing reptiles that are well adapted to life in the marine environment—regularly nest on U.S. beaches and depend on coastal waters for foraging and migration. During the summer and fall, four species of sea turtles are commonly found in Massachusetts waters: green (Chelonia mydas), Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). All four of these species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (and all seven of the world's sea turtle species are federally listed as threatened or endangered). This CZ-Tip provides information about these amazing animals, explains the threats to sea turtles, gives tips on what you can do to protect turtles, and more.
Sea Turtle Facts
- Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean, but adult females return to beaches on land to lay their eggs—some returning to beaches where they hatched. The four species found in Massachusetts waters commonly nest (mostly at night) on the beaches of the southeast United States, the Caribbean, northern South America, Central America, and Mexico. Ninety-five percent of Kemp's ridley turtles nest on one beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico (during the daylight hours)! See the State of World's Sea Turtles' interactive maps for the actual locations of hundreds of nesting sites.
- Sea turtles often migrate long distances between feeding areas and nesting beaches. A female loggerhead will travel hundreds of miles to nest (even across the Pacific!), lay approximately 100 eggs, and then swim back to where she started (all while barely stopping for food). You can track the location of tagged loggerheads in the Atlantic throughout the year on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center satellite tracking page.
- Approximately 60 days after the female lays her eggs in sandy nests, baby sea turtles emerge and make their way to the ocean, where they spend their first few years of life (known as the "lost years" due to a lack of detailed information about this phase). See Science Daily's Biologists Close in on Mystery of Sea Turtles' 'Lost Years' for more information about this secretive phase of life. After the lost years, the juvenile turtles eventually head to nearshore waters to forage and mature.
- Sea turtles eat a variety of sea plants and animals, ranging from sponges, crabs, mollusks, fish, jellyfish, and algae. Adult green turtles are the only marine turtles to feed exclusively on plants. See What Sea Turtles Eat on the SEE Turtles website for more information.
- The largest turtle (as well as the largest reptile) in the world is the leatherback, weighing in at up to 2,000 pounds (on a diet of only jellies)! Due to its large size (as well as its thick, oil-saturated connective tissue and unique heat exchange system), the leatherback is able to maintain a core body temperature higher than that of the surrounding water and can therefore tolerate colder waters. The leatherback turtle is also the only sea turtle that lacks a hard, bony shell—instead having an outer shell of interlocking dermal bones covered with a leathery skin (hence the name). See images of this giant reptile on NOAA's leatherback turtle photo page.
- The largest hard-shelled turtle is the green turtle reaching up to 330 pounds (see NOAA's green turtle photo page). Only juvenile green turtles are found in Massachusetts coastal waters, following their oceanic phase of life.
Threats to Sea Turtles
Though most sea turtle populations were drastically reduced by historical egg harvest and hunting, few countries still engage in these activities. Today's threats are generally more incidental, but they can still devastate turtle populations. These threats include:
- Habitat Loss and Degradation - Turtle nesting sites are in limited supply. Development, increased human use of the coast, light pollution, seawalls, and other alterations prevent successful nesting. See NOAA's Threats in the Terrestrial Environment for details.
- Pollution - Oil spills or other contaminants entering the waters can damage feeding grounds and habitat and injure or kill turtles (see NOAA's Impacts of Oil on Marine Mammals and Sea Turtles for general information and Sea Turtles and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill for particular data on turtle survival and mortality following this event).
- Fishing Gear - Accidental capture in fishing gear, such as gillnets, trawls, traps, pots, and longlines, is a continued threat for turtles. See NOAA's Fisheries Interactions/Protected Species Bycatch.
- Boat Strikes - When turtles come to the surface to breathe, rest, or feed, they are vulnerable to collisions from boats. See the Sea Turtle Foundation website for more information on the causes and impacts of Boat Strikes.
- Trash and Marine Debris - Turtles are known to eat trash when they mistake it for food (particularly plastic bags, which look a lot like jellyfish when floating in the ocean). They can also become entangled in discarded and lost fishing line and rope. See NOAA's Marine Debris Program website.
What You Can Do
Sea turtles have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. You can help safeguard their populations today by:
Reporting Stranded Sea Turtles - In Massachusetts, there are two distinct sea turtle stranding seasons: 1) summer and fall due to a variety of natural and human-related causes, including entanglements and boat collisions, and 2) late fall and winter due to cold-stunning (when turtles go into shock from dropping water temperatures). If you come across a sea turtle stranded on the beach, even if it looks dead, it may not be—cold-stunned turtles that have washed ashore have very low heart rates (as little as one beat per minute). These and other stranded turtles are often dehydrated, hypothermic, or have sustained injuries and will require assistance before they can re-enter the water. Do not attempt to take matters into your own hands—call the NOAA Marine Animal Hotline (866-755-6622) and wait for trained and authorized emergency responders to help. The following organizations are involved in stranded sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation:
- The New England Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program and the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary are two of NOAA's Northeast Region network members who respond to sea turtle strandings along the Massachusetts shoreline.
- The Aquarium's Rescue Program successfully rehabilitates sea turtles at their facility each year—you can even read about some of their current patients on their Meet our Patients page. The National Marine Life Center also provides care and rehabilitation for injured sea turtles at their facility in Buzzards Bay.
Reporting Entangled Sea Turtles - If you come across an entangled sea turtle at sea:
- Turn off the boat's engine and observe the animal from a distance. Make note of where the turtle is entangled on its body and whether there is a buoy visible (with any indentifying information).
- Call the NOAA Marine Animal Hotline (866-755-6622) or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 and wait for responders to arrive (the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies is the primary disentanglement responder in Massachusetts waters).
- Do not get in the water with or attempt to disentangle the turtle, which can cause further harm to the animal or injury to you.
- Do not cut the anchoring line and release the turtle with gear still on it because emergency responders will not be able to ensure the animal is out of harm's way and will not be able to collect any information about the turtle or the gear. In addition, the remaining "ghost gear" has the potential to cause further harm to other animals.
Boating and Fishing Responsibly - To avoid boat strikes and gear entanglement that cause injury or death to sea turtles (as well as other marine animals), follow these general rules on the water:
- Maintain a vigilant watch for sea turtles (hint: if many jellyfish are seen at the ocean surface, sea turtles are also likely to be in the area). If sighted, keep a safe distance (of 50 yards or greater) between the animal and the boat whenever possible.
- If gear is lost at sea, make reasonable attempts to retrieve it (see the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Loss and Abandonment of Fishing Gear web page for details). See the Massachusetts Environmental Police's Boat Massachusetts—Your Guide to Boating Laws and Responsibilities website for additional information about safe and responsible boating.
Reducing Marine Debris - To help prevent sea turtle casualties from trash and discarded materials, follow these simple rules.
- Always dispose of trash properly—litter may be blown to the shore or carried by storm drains into local waterways, becoming marine debris. See the Keep America Beautiful Programs and Initiatives web page for more on preventing litter.
- Join the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Management's (CZM) COASTSWEEP event (part of the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup, which is held worldwide each September to raise awareness of marine debris and clean beaches). If you can't attend the annual event, bring your community together independently to collect trash along the shores of a local beach, park, or street. See the CZ-Tip - Help Clean Up Massachusetts Shores at COASTSWEEP for additional information.
Additional Turtle Links
- NOAA's Northeast Sea Turtle Stranding and Disentanglement Program page provides information on the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN) that was established to provide rescue and response for stranded sea turtles, conduct scientific and educational studies, and better understand the threats in the marine environment. The program page also describes the Northeast Region Sea Turtle Disentanglement Network (STDN) that was established to help respond to entangled turtles, promote reporting, and increase the successful disentanglement and rehabilitation of injured turtles.
- Seaturtle.org provides access to newsletters, research projects, satellite tracking, images, a nesting database, adoption programs, and more.
- The State of the World's Sea Turtles (SWOT) website offers reports, maps and data, and current news. Their interactive maps feature comprehensive global nesting abundance and distribution information about leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, flatback, olive ridley, and Kemp's ridley turtles.
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Sea Turtles factsheet provides detailed information about the life history of sea turtles, specific species information, and their common threats. Their Protect Sea Turtles—You Can Help! factsheet provides guidance for protecting sea turtles at sea and on land. Their Northeast Region Endangered Species Program website includes information on the federal Endangered Species Act, listed species, and action plans.
- The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program website includes regulatory information, details on threatened and endangered species, and protection strategies.