For Immediate Release - July 29, 2010

State Researchers Remind Boaters About Presence of Endangered Leatherback Turtles in Massachusetts Coastal Waters

Photo of leatherback turtle with tracking tag.

Photo of leatherback turtle.

Photo of leatherback turtle.

BOSTON - July 29, 2010 - With the busiest weeks of the boating season in the late summer and fall, state marine biologists are urging boaters and commercial fishermen to be on the lookout for migrating leatherback turtles, an 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 be struck by vessels.

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.

Vessel operators are urged to proceed with caution and post look-outs in hotspot locations, such as Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay. If operators spot an entangled turtle or whale, they are urged not to disentangle the animal or otherwise touch the animals or the gear. In many cases, an untrained disentanglement can be detrimental to the animal and result in serious injury to the people involved. Instead, please report all sightings of entangled turtles or whales immediately.
Call the Entanglement Hotline at 800-900-3622 or NOAA Fisheries Hotline at 866-755-NOAA (or hail the Coast Guard on Channel 16). Remain at a safe distance from the animal until trained help arrives.

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.

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.