Frequent Questions: Northern Gulf of Mexico Sea Turtle Strandings
Frequently asked questions for sea turtle strandings in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
Which sea turtles are found in the Gulf of Mexico?
Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are found within the Gulf of Mexico, including the Kemp’s ridley, green turtle, loggerhead, hawksbill, and leatherback. All are threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Gulf of Mexico is especially important for the Kemp’s ridley turtle as most individuals of this species are found in Gulf waters and almost all Kemp’s ridleys nest on beaches of the western Gulf, primarily in Mexico, but nesting also occurs regularly in south Texas.
What does "stranding" mean?
"Stranding" refers to a sea turtle that is either found dead or is alive but is unable to go about its normal behavior due to an injury, illness, or other problem. Stranded sea turtles may be found washed ashore or floating in the water.
What do I do if I find a stranded sea turtle?
Each State has a hotline for reporting sea turtle strandings. Strandings can be reported to the hotlines 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you find a stranded sea turtle or a sea turtle that you feel needs assistance, please call the hotline for your state.
Why do sea turtles strand in the Gulf?
There are multiple causes of sea turtle strandings in the Gulf of Mexico. Many strandings are the result of human activities, including accidental capture in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and entanglement in marine debris. There are other causes that occur occasionally, seasonally, or within specific areas. For example, red tides sometimes form within the Gulf and when prolonged can cause sea turtle strandings. Cold-stunning occurs during winter months when water temperatures rapidly and persistently drop below 50˚F (10˚C). Cold stunning tends to happen in specific locations within the northern Gulf, including St. Joseph Bay Florida, and inshore waters of Texas. Another cause of sea turtle strandings in Florida and Texas, particularly green turtles, is a viral-associated disease called fibropapillomatosis, which causes tumors of the skin. This disease is also found elsewhere and is not transmittable to humans.
Are the numbers of sea turtle strandings in the Gulf unusual?
Analysis of the current strandings is underway; however, spring increases in strandings have been documented in the northern Gulf for many years. Following winter months, sea turtle strandings in the northern Gulf of Mexico tend to increase, peaking in March or April, and continue through the summer. The reason for this seasonality is not completely understood, but is likely related to a combination of increases in the number of sea turtles as they return to warming inshore waters in the spring, interaction with causes of mortality, and winds and currents favoring beaching of drifting turtles onto Gulf shorelines. All sea turtle strandings, particularly those caused by human activities, are concerning and are investigated.
What is being found in postmortem examinations (necropsies) of sea turtles?
Most of the stranded sea turtles in the northern Gulf of Mexico during the spring are found dead and decomposed. Investigation into the causes of the current strandings, including necropsies, is ongoing. Preliminary findings are very similar to previous years and indicate that most of the turtles do not have any obvious injuries, are in normal nutritional condition, were feeding prior to death, and thus appeared to have died from relatively sudden causes. These findings are commonly observed when turtles are accidentally caught and killed in fishing gear, thus possible association with regional fishing activity is an ongoing concern and steps are being taken to reduce this mortality factor (see “What is NOAA doing about the strandings?”).
Are the sea turtle strandings related to freshwater releases into the Gulf?
There are no apparent links between releases of freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico and the current sea turtle strandings. Lowering of salinity (salt concentration) in areas of freshwater release may negatively impact habitat and prey of sea turtles and alter their activities, but freshwater is not expected to have immediate direct effects on sea turtles themselves under the conditions found in the Gulf. For example, some wild sea turtles normally forage in waters with low salinity, including coastal areas of rivers and creeks. Nonetheless, environmental changes that reduce sea turtle prey or alter their preferred habitats are of concern.
What is NOAA doing about the strandings?
NOAA works with other federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and private organizations within the Gulf under what is called the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. The Network responds to and documents stranded sea turtles, transports live turtles to rehabilitation facilities for care, performs postmortem examinations (necropsy) of dead turtles, and collects valuable information to help identify causes of stranding. In addition, NOAA scientists study drift patterns and other factors to help pinpoint locations where turtles may have died in order to better understand and potentially reduce causes of mortality. Lastly, federal and state fisheries law enforcement officers and NOAA fishing gear experts work with commercial fishermen throughout the Gulf to promote proper use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in shrimping nets. Many of these activities have been enhanced under the Sea Turtle Early Restoration Project, developed and implemented following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This project is administered by NOAA, the Department of the Interior, and the state of Texas.