Sixty-six cold-stunned turtles rescued on Cape Cod beaches have been treated this year at the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital as of Thursday.
Sea turtles become cold-stunned when low water temperatures cause increased heart rate and limited circulation, leading to restricted swimming ability and pneumonia, said Jennifer Goebel, public affairs officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.
The hospital took in 40 turtles over a two-day period last week, according to a New England Aquarium press release.
The number of cold-stunned turtles rescued in recent years peaked at more than 1,200 in 2014, and numbers have stayed closer to half that since, Goebel said. Many of the turtles get caught in the hook of Cape Cod and are unable to swim south as waters cool.
The turtles are rehabilitated, tagged and returned to the sea once rescued, according to the press release.
“We don’t get a lot of repeat offenders,” Goebel said. “Once the sea turtle has been rescued, rehabilitated and taken back down south, we don’t tend to see them again.”
Kemp’s ridley turtles are one of the most commonly rescued species and the most endangered, Goebel added. NOAA has been working to recover the species for more than 20 years.
“Every single turtle that’s stranded is important to the continued success of the population,” Goebel said. “It’s important that we have people out there collecting these turtles and we have this massive network of volunteers.”
After turtles are rescued on the beaches by staff and volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, they are taken to the National Marine Life Center or the New England Aquarium, Goebel said. The turtles are moved to other rehabilitation sites after receiving immediate care.
The nonprofit organization Turtles Fly Too transports sea turtles to rehabilitation centers along the East Coast.
President Leslie Weinstein said his team has added precautions due to the pandemic — everything on the plane is disinfected, and masks, gloves and social distancing are required.
“[Pilots’] safety is extremely important to us because we need them flying, Weinstein said. “We don’t want them sick.”
Lower capacities at rehabilitation facilities due to social distancing have been the biggest hurdle to rescuing large numbers of turtles, especially Kemp’s ridley turtles, Weinstein said.
“The rehab times are extremely prolonged. It’s almost akin to what we’re seeing in our medical system being overloaded,” said Robert Dey, veterinary adviser of Turtles Fly Too.
Most of the cold-stunned turtles that are rescued are extremely sick, and some are unable to be treated because it can take months or years for them to recover, Dey said.
“One of the good things that we do is that we can move turtles quickly from one place to the other, and be efficient about it,” Dey said. “Even with the protocols, that’s still the mission of TF2.”
However, Weinstein said, the pandemic has prevented TF2 from transporting sea turtles to several locations.
“People need to understand the serious impacts of conservation,” Weinstein said. “It’s taking a serious hit, and funds are critical to all of us and funds are needed by all of us.”
Decreased funding has shut down aquariums across the country, Weinstein said, and sea turtle hospitals are unable to purchase new medicines to treat the turtles.
Turtles Fly Too also transports marine animals such as whales and seals across the country as an emergency air ambulance service, Weinstein said.
“We’re not doing this for the organizations,” Weinstein said. “We’re doing this for conservation, for the sea turtles.”
If a stranded sea turtle is found on a beach, observers are urged to call the NOAA hotline at 866-755-6622, or the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at 888-732-8878 for turtles found on Cape Cod.