For Immediate Release - September 01, 2010

State Marine Wildlife Officials Remind Boaters to Watch Out for Endangered Leatherback Turtles in Massachusetts Coastal Waters

Photo of leatherback turtle with tracking tag

Photo of leatherback turtle.

Photo of leatherback turtle.

BOSTON - September 1, 2010 - With the recent rescues of two leatherback turtles last week off Cape Cod, state marine biologists are urging recreational boaters and commercial fishermen to be on the lookout for the migrating endangered species.

From June to October, leatherback turtles, which were placed on the endangered species list in 1970, migrate through Massachusetts coastal waters to feed on jellyfish. While here, they are at risk for being entangled in buoy lines and struck by vessels. Boaters and anglers can reduce the risk of vessel collision by proceeding with caution and posting lookouts while navigating hot spot locations, such as Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay.

Given the high volume of recreational boating and fishing in Massachusetts during the summer months, boaters and anglers are often are the first to encounter entangled turtles. Two turtles were saved last week after recreational boaters reported turtle entanglements in the waters off Truro and Harwich.

It is crucial for boaters to call for assistance immediately after sighting an entangled sea turtle by notifying the Massachusetts Sea Turtle Disentanglement Hotline at 800-900-3622. Boaters are urged to keep a safe distance and wait until trained biologists arrive to disentangle the turtles, which can be fatally injured if they are not properly separated from fishing or boating gear. An untrained disentanglement can also injure untrained people.

If operators spot entangled marine mammals, they are urged not to disentangle the animal or otherwise touch the animals or the gear. Boaters should report all sightings of entangled turtles or whales immediately by calling the Disentanglement Hotline or NOAA Fisheries Hotline at 866-755-NOAA (or hail the Coast Guard on Channel 16).

A wide variety of marine species feed in the Commonwealth's coastal waters, including other endangered species such as loggerhead turtles and right whales, which are also susceptible to vessel collision. Sea turtles are difficult to spot, since they have a low profile in the water and spend considerable time on the surface, where they are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes and entanglements.

Leatherback turtles can grow to five to seven feet long and can weigh between 500 to 2,000 pounds. They are black with a soft shell and distinctive ridges running down their back. Leatherbacks are found in the tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans in locations as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Australia. The global population is estimated at 26,000 to 43,000 nesting females annually, which is a dramatic decline from the 115,000 estimated in 1980.

In May, the Division of Marine Fisheries' (DMF) Protected Species Program was awarded a three-year grant to conduct leatherback sea turtle research and disentanglement in Massachusetts waters. The grant administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a partnership between DMF, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The goal of the project is to research leatherback turtle behavior and habitat use in Massachusetts and surrounding areas, and to mitigate entanglement in fixed-gear fisheries, such as lobster fishing. Work will include aerial surveys, satellite tagging, disentanglement, gear analysis and research into possible commercial fishing gear modification to reduce entanglements. DMF has operated the Massachusetts Sea Turtle Disentanglement Program with the Center for Coastal Studies since 2005.