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NOAA Releases 79 Florida Loggerhead Sea Turtles into the Wild

June 29, 2023

Juvenile sea turtles returned to the wild after study to reduce bycatch.

2 women and 2 men each holding a small sea turtle lean over the side of a ship about to release the turtles NOAA staff, with support from U.S. Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet, released 79 juvenile loggerhead sea turtles off of Florida's east coast. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ben Higgins (Permit #20339-03)

NOAA Fisheries scientists and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released 79 loggerhead sea turtles into the ocean off Florida’s east coast. The turtles were raised in captivity as part of a unique program to test devices used during commercial fishing operations to reduce sea turtle bycatch and mortality.    

The turtles were part of 2 weeks of testing that took place near Panama City, Florida in mid-June. Scientists from NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center evaluated the effectiveness of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) in shrimp trawls. “This work is so important to the survival of endangered sea turtles,” said NOAA biologist Ben Higgins.

2 smiling men stand outside, 1 is holding a small sea turtle
Ben Higgins, lead sea turtle biologist and Jeff Gearhart, lead TED testing gear specialist in Panama City Florida. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ben Higgins (Permit #20339-03)

TEDs are the part of a shrimp trawl that allow sea turtles to escape from fishing nets, while allowing shrimp to be caught. They are required by law on shrimp trawling boats, as part of an effort to increase sea turtle populations. During the testing, divers closely monitor and document the sea turtles’ behavior to assess how effectively they can escape from TED-equipped shrimp trawls—all in less than 5 minutes.

“Decades of TED research has developed technology that reduces the average time a sea turtle spends in the trawl from several minutes down to less than 30 seconds,” said NOAA biologist Ben Higgins. By using live sea turtles, scientists can obtain the most reliable data.

Biologists raise loggerhead sea turtles, hatched on the east coast of Florida, in Galveston, Texas. Following this research, the turtles are returned to Florida. Biologists then release all of the turtles, unharmed, to an area where wild turtles of the same size are found. This year's release will mark the end of more than 30 years of using captive reared sea turtles for TED testing.

“Scientists spend several weeks conditioning these turtles in a semi-wild environment, preparing them for release into the wild. From what we can tell, the turtles we release become fully assimilated into the wild stocks,” Higgins added.

This year, the U.S. Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet provided vessel support to release the sea turtles. 

This project was supported by funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group. The goal is to reduce unintentional captures of juvenile sea turtles in the shrimp trawl fishery and provide valuable insights for future sea turtle restoration projects.

Help Keep Sea Turtles Safe

Sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act and may only be handled by authorized individuals. Handling turtles can also be unsafe—even small sea turtles will bite people and can inflict painful wounds if handled or provoked. 

Any sea turtle that washed ashore or appears to be experiencing difficulty swimming may be sick or injured. Never touch or remove anything from a turtle. If you see a sea turtle that appears to be in distress, injured, or dead please contact your local Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. In Florida, call Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s Wildlife Alert Hotline: (888) 404‑FWCC (3922). Qualified wildlife professionals will ensure the turtles receive proper examination and treatment. 

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on June 29, 2023