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Meet NOAA Fisheries' Southeast Sea Turtle Biologists

NOAA biologists answer questions about how they got into sea turtle research and what they do to better understand and conserve the species. Meet Dr. Chris Sasso, Dennis Klemm and Dr. Melissa Cook.

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Dr. Chris Sasso

Research Fisheries Biologist/NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center - Miami, FL

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Dr. Sasso with a leatherback turtle in Cape Cod Bay, MA. NOAA Permit 21233. Photo by Dr. Heather Haas.
Dr. Sasso with a leatherback turtle in Cape Cod Bay, MA. NOAA Permit 21233. Photo by Dr. Heather Haas.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago

Where did you go to school and what subject did you get your degree(s) in?
I went to the University of Illinois for my B.S. in animal sciences and to the University of Miami for my Ph.D. in biology. I studied endangered small mammals in Key Largo for my Ph.D.

What do you do at NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center?
I am currently the Acting Branch Chief for the Sea Turtle Program and lead many of our in-water data collection projects.

What do you like most about your position?
I most enjoy doing fieldwork with my colleagues and research partners and spend about three months a year in the field. All the new things we discover and the contribution the research makes to conserving sea turtles is what motivates me to want to keep learning more about sea turtles.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy hunting and fishing with friends and family as well as watching sports car and Formula 1 racing.

How did you first become involved in Sea Turtle Research?
I was lucky enough to get a job at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center that needed someone that had experience with mark-recapture data and population assessments. I have been doing sea turtle research ever since joining the Center in 2002.

What research are you currently involved with?
I am currently working on multiple research projects in the Gulf of Mexico and US Atlantic Ocean. I have projects in the Gulf and Atlantic looking at habitat use and movements of leatherback sea turtles and using those data to improve population estimates. I’m starting a new project this summer in Mississippi to determine how changes in the amount of freshwater flowing into the Gulf affects sea turtle habitat use and distribution in inshore/nearshore areas due to changes in salinity. In Biscayne Bay, I am researching how boat traffic frequency and intensity impacts sea turtle behavior. I also have an ongoing project on the west coast of Florida looking at habitat use and abundance of Kemp’s ridley, green, and loggerhead sea turtles.

Why is protecting and conserving sea turtles—the goal of this research—important?
Protecting sea turtles is important because they are important members of the ecosystem and research on them helps humans understand our impact on the oceans. Green turtles play an important role in keeping sea grass healthy and productive for many other species through their grazing of the sea grass, the same way bison are important to prairies. Hawksbills help keep coral reefs healthy by eating the sponges that would otherwise suffocate the coral. Sea turtles are being impacted by climate change so studying them gives us a window into understanding how the oceans are changing and the effects of those changes on the ecosystems on which we depend for seafood. Sea turtles are listed as threatened and endangered, and must be protected by law so our sea turtle research also helps us eliminate or minimize any negative impacts on sea turtles from activities such as energy development and harvesting of seafood.

What is the biggest threat or concern for U.S. sea turtle populations right now? What can the public do to help protect them?
The biggest threat right now is climate change, partly because we cannot entirely predict how sea turtles will be impacted. The concerns are not only direct impacts but also understanding how changes in fishing or energy needs will affect sea turtles. The public can do their part to reduce climate impacts and support the science and research needed to understand and mitigate climate change impacts on sea turtles.

What advice would you give to students/young people interested in being a sea turtle biologist?
My advice to students/young people is to first have a love for science, to ask questions about why what you observe is the way it is, and then have the curiosity and drive to seek the answers. Sea turtles are fascinating animals and we have only just begun to understand them.

Published work:
Leatherback Turtles in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico: Foraging and Migration Behavior During the Autumn and Winter https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.660798

Dennis Klemm

Sea Turtle Recovery Coordinator/NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office - St. Petersburg, FL

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Scientist Dennis Klemm holding a sea turtle.
Scientist Dennis Klemm holding a sea turtle.

Education: Dual major BS degree in Marine Science and Biology-University of Miami; MS degree in Zoology-University of South Florida

How did you first become involved in sea turtle conservation?
I started my career with NOAA Fisheries in a generalized Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation biologist role.  Within a couple years my focus shifted towards more sea-turtle specific work, before finally evolving as the Sea Turtle Recovery Coordinator for the SE Region.  I have been with NOAA for nearly 20 years.

Why is protecting and conserving sea turtles important? 
Sea turtles are keystone species in their environment, playing an important role in various aspects of the ecosystems they inhabit.  Among their many ecosystem functions, they: help maintain seagrass beds, coral reefs, and other habitats through their foraging activities; help balance populations levels of prey items such as jellyfish, crabs, and mollusks; and aid in nutrient cycling both on the nesting beaches and on their foraging grounds.  The loss of sea turtles can create a cascade of negative impacts on marine and beach ecosystems.

What does it mean to be a natural resource manager? What kinds of laws/regulations have you been involved with?
Working as a natural resource manager involves joining the policy and regulatory side of conservation with the science. Therefore, an understanding of both aspects is important.

My work as the Sea Turtle Recovery Coordinator for the Southeast Region revolves around the ESA, as that is the primary law in the United States related to the conservation and recovery of species in peril.  All of the sea turtle species in U.S. waters are listed as either threatened or endangered under the ESA. Other major laws, such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, also come into play in protecting sea turtles and regulating activities to reduce impacts to those species.

Working within the framework of those laws, I am involved in various efforts ultimately aimed at recovering sea turtle species.  Such work includes: conducting biological opinions on the effects of projects and fisheries on sea turtles; working to draft and enact regulations such as turtle excluder device and other gear requirements for fisheries to reduce impacts to sea turtles; working on Recovery Plans and Status Reviews for the species; designating Critical Habitat under the ESA; and assessing the species ecology and management to determine whether dividing them into distinct population segments (DPS), each with a separate ESA-listing, is appropriate. I am also involved in sea turtle restoration work using funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill event settlement.

How does the information/scientific data you receive from field scientists help you help turtles?
Science forms the foundation for the rules, regulations, and policies we make to protect and conserve sea turtles.  Without the data and analyses provided through the efforts of research scientists we would not have the capability to make informed management decisions.  The research scientists and analysts, both within NOAA Fisheries and from other agencies, academia, and non-government organizations, provide information on everything from basic biological and ecological knowledge to analyses of the nature and extent of threats and impacts to sea turtles.  That scientific information comes into play when determining what is happening with sea turtles and what we ultimately do to attempt to reduce negative impacts in effective and meaningful ways to help the species recover from being threatened and endangered.

What is the biggest threat or concern for U.S. sea turtle populations right now? What can the public do to help protect them?
The largest category of direct threat to U.S. sea turtle populations at this time comes from interactions with fishing gear, which can result in mortality and serious injury, primarily from drowning, entanglement, and hooking.  It is important to note that because sea turtle life history involves extensive migrations over various life stages, populations that nest in the U.S. are impacted by fisheries, and other activities, throughout large areas of the world, not just in U.S. waters.  Longer term issues such as habitat loss and climate change are also major threats to sea turtle recovery and persistence into the future.

The public can do their part by making consumer choices that reduce impacts to sea turtles, such as buying seafood caught in more sustainable manners, as well as making decisions in their daily lives to reduce plastic waste, do not litter (even a lot of litter well inland ends up in the oceans, including balloons that are released), and reduce the use of fossil fuels that drive climate change.

What advice would you give to students/young people interested in being a sea turtle biologist?
Of course, having the knowledge base of conservation, biological, and ecological principles is required.  So is patience and being willing to explore different avenues and opportunities.  Also, whether you ultimately decide to go into the research side, or the conservation, management, and policy side of sea turtle biology and conservation, networking and making connections within the community of sea turtle biologists (government, academia, NGOs) is important.  It not only increases your knowledge and awareness of what is going on, and what opportunities are available, in the field, it can lead to enriching professional relationships, and friendships, within a community of people that share a similar interest and passion!

Published work:

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2013. Biological Report on the Designation of Marine Critical Habitat for the Loggerhead Sea Turtle.  https://repository.library.noaa.gov/view/noaa/16867

Seminoff, J.A., C.D. Allen, G.H. Balazs, P.H. Dutton, T. Eguchi, H.L. Haas, S.A. Hargrove, 

M.P. Jensen, D.L. Klemm, A.M. Lauritsen, S.L. MacPherson, P. Opay, E.E. Possardt, S.L. Pultz, 

E.E. Seney, K.S. Van Houtan, R.S. Waples. 2015. Status Review of the Green Turtle Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOAA-

NMFS-SWFSC-539. 571pp. https://repository.library.noaa.gov/view/noaa/4922

National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2020. Endangered Species Act status review of the leatherback turtle. Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Protected Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/document/status-review-leatherback-turtle-dermochelys-coriacea

Dr. Melissa Cook


Research Fishery Biologist/NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center - Miami, FL

 

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Scientist Melissa Cook on a boat with a loggerhead sea turtle.
Scientist Melissa Cook on a boat with a loggerhead sea turtle.

Where did you grow up?
Northampton, PA, it's a small town in eastern Pennsylvania.

Where did you go to school and what subject did you get your degree(s) in?
B.S. in Biology with a Marine concentration from East Carolina University (1996), Ph.D. in Coastal Science - University of Southern Mississippi (2007) 

How did you come to work at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center?
I was hired as a member of the Reef fish Team in 1997. My first job was viewing video tapes from our reef fish surveys and identifying the species of fish. I spent the next 13 years working on various research projects in the Gulf of Mexico mostly focusing on reef fish, particularly grouper, before changing my research focus to sea turtles in 2011.

What do you do at the Science Center?
I am a biologist in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division. My research focus is on sea turtle strandings, mortality investigations, sea turtle incidental captures, and habitat use and distribution.  

What do you like most about your position?
I enjoy conducting field research, analyzing data, having the chance to make a difference by helping an endangered species and talking to people about sea turtles.  

What do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy spending time with my family, especially my two daughters, and our dogs. I like cooking, paddle boarding, and relaxing at the pool.

How did you first become involved in Sea Turtle Research?
I have been a member of NOAA's Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN) since 1997, where I respond to dead or injured sea turtles that wash up on local beaches. In 2011, I had the opportunity to become the STSSN Coordinator for Mississippi and then became involved in numerous sea turtle research projects over the last decade.

What can the public do to help protect sea turtles? Reduce, reuse and recycle and encourage your friends and family to do it too! Do a beach clean-up and always leave a place cleaner than when you found it.

What advice would you give to students/young people interested in being a sea turtle biologist? Study hard and take advantage of all of the different internships and volunteer opportunities available.

Published work:

Stacy, B. A., A. M. Folley, D. J. Shaver, C. M. Purvin, L. N. Howell, M. Cook, and J. L. Keene. 2021. Scavenging versus predation: shark-bite injuries in stranded sea turtles in the southeastern USA. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 143: 19-26. https://doi.org/10.3354/dao03552

Avens, L., M. D. Ramirez, A. G. Hall, M. L. Snover, H. L. Haas, M. H. Godfrey, L. R. Goshe, M. Cook, S. S. Heppell. 2020. Regional differences in Kemp’s ridley sea turtle growth trajectories and expected age at maturation. Marine Ecology Progress Series 654: 143–161. doi:10.3354/meps13507

Cook, M., V. S. Dunch and A. Coleman. 2020. An interview-based approach to assess angler practices and sea turtle captures on Mississippi fishing piers. Frontiers in Marine Science 7:655. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.00655

Cook, M., R. W., Nero, J. L. Reneker, R. W. Nero, B. A. Stacy and D. S. Hanisko. 2020. Effects of freezing on decomposition of sea turtle carcasses used for forensic studies. Fishery Bulletin 118:268–274. doi: 10.7755/FB.118.3.5

Ramirez, M. D.,  L. Avens, L. R. Goshe, M.L. Snover, M. Cook, S. H. Haas, S. Heppell. 2020. Regional environmental drivers of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle somatic growth variation. Mar Biol 167, 146 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-020-03754-2

Ramirez, M. D.,  L. Avens, L. R. Goshe, M.L. Snover, M. Cook, S. Heppell. 2020. Regional variation in Kemp’s ridley sea turtle diet composition and its potential relationship with somatic growth. Mar Biol 167, 146 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-020-03754-2

Reneker, J. L., M. Cook and R. W. Nero. 2018. Preparation of fresh dead sea turtle carcasses for at-sea drift experiments. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SEFSC-731. 14 pp. doi:10.25923/9hgx-fn38

Putman, N. F, E. E. Seney, P. Verley, D. J. Shaver, M. C. López-Castro, M. Cook…K. Mansfield. 2019. Predicted distributions and abundances of the sea turtle “lost years” in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Ecography 42: 506-517. doi: 10.1111/ecog.04929

Last updated by Southeast Regional Office on June 17, 2021