Sea turtles are reptiles (cold-blooded, air-breathing animals) with bodies that are well-adapted to the marine environment. Found worldwide, they typically nest (lay their eggs) on tropical beaches and forage (feed) as far north as temperate waters. Six sea turtle species are found in U.S. waters, and all six are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The sea turtle shell consists of two parts, the carapace (upper part) and plastron (lower part). Green, hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, loggerhead, and olive ridleys are considered “hard-shelled” sea turtles and have shells made up of large bony plates covered with hard scales. The leatherback has a shell of small interlocking bones covered with black, rubbery skin. Turtle shells, along with other features, are used to distinguish between species of sea turtles.
The green, hawksbill (rare visitor to the Northeast), Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, and loggerhead sea turtles, are found in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean. Juveniles and, to a lesser extent, adults are commonly found in mid-Atlantic and northeast waters. These waters serve as important foraging and developmental areas for sea turtles when water temperatures are warm enough. Sea turtles often migrate long distances from nesting beaches to their foraging grounds. As water temperatures warm in the spring, sea turtles begin to migrate northward, arriving in Virginia waters as early as April and on the more northern foraging grounds in New England as early as May. This trend is reversed in the fall as water temperatures cool with most sea turtles leaving New England by November.
Sea Turtle Recovery in our Region
NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share jurisdiction for sea turtles. NOAA has the lead responsibility in the marine environment, while the Service has responsibility for sea turtles on land. We work to manage, conserve, and rebuild the populations of the five species of sea turtles found in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic waters. We work closely with the Service, other NOAA Fisheries offices, Canada, and the states (through the ESA Section 6 program, the Annual Determination process, and other coordination).
Threats to sea turtles in the marine environment include bycatch in commercial and recreational fisheries, vessel collisions, marine pollution, capture during channel dredging, and impingement on power plant intakes, among others. Some of these threats are addressed through the ESA Section 7 program and federal agency consultations. There are also a number of regulations in place to help protect sea turtles in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, including bycatch reduction measures for scallop dredges, summer flounder trawls, large mesh gillnets, Virginia pound nets, and longlines, as well as safe handling and resuscitation requirements for all fisheries.
We also coordinate the Greater Atlantic Region Sea Turtle Stranding and Disentanglement Networks, which include non-profit organizations, state agencies, and universities that respond to live and dead stranded or distressed sea turtles, as well as collect data on these events. Injured or sick sea turtles are often brought into rehabilitation facilities for recovery.