Guest Column: Keep an eye out for sea turtles this season

First published in Landings, June, 2016.

On July 12, 2015, Maine Marine Patrol learned that a six-foot-long leatherback sea turtle was entangled in the vertical lines of pot gear off the coast of Kennebunkport. Two officers, Chris Hilton and Ben Burns, diverted from their normal duties to help the turtle. It was important to reach the sea turtle quickly. Sea turtles, like their reptilian cousins, breathe air; the animal may drown if it cannot reach the surface to breathe due to entanglement in line or netting. Entanglement can also cause serious injury to the turtle as it struggles and tries to get away from the gear.

A leatherback turtle is named for the leathery, semi-flexible plates that form its shell. The animals may grow to between 600 and 1,000 pounds in weight. NOAA photo.

A leatherback turtle is named for the leathery, semi-flexible plates that form its shell. The animals may grow to between 600 and 1,000 pounds in weight. NOAA photo.

When Officers Hilton and Burns arrived on scene, they found the turtle’s front flippers entangled by vertical lines from two sets of lobster pot gear. When they approached the turtle, it started diving and hauling the buoys under the surface. The officers gaffed the anchoring line and cleated it to their boat, allowing them to get close to the turtle. They cut the lines from the turtle and it swam off, with only chafing on its flippers as evidence of its ordeal. This turtle was lucky to have been reported early by a private boater and to receive such a quick response from the Maine Marine Patrol. Unfortunately, not all turtles are so lucky.

Dangerous rescue

When a sea turtle becomes entangled in line, releasing it can be risky and complicated. Lines can become wrapped many times around the neck and flippers, cutting off circulation and damaging the skin or holding the animal below the water. Entangled turtles must be handled carefully to avoid further injury and to give them the best chance of survival. All gear must be removed before release as even small amounts left on the turtle can eventually lead to serious injury or death. Due to the complexity of these cases and potential danger of handling large, powerful animals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) works with the Sea Turtle Disentanglement Network, which is made up of nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies that are authorized and trained to respond. In Maine, most entangled turtles are leatherbacks, which can weigh up to 1000 pounds. Handling an animal this big can be dangerous for responders. For everyone’s safety, responders undergo specialized training and are legally authorized to disentangle sea turtles.

Ongoing problem

All sea turtles in U.S. waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Through management, conservation, and recovery efforts, and public outreach and education, responders strive to ensure the survival of sea turtles. Freeing entangled sea turtles is a stop-gap measure to address the issue of sea turtle entanglement in vertical line. Ultimately, we want to better understand why and how turtles become entangled in order to stop entanglements from happening in the first place. Only a fraction of the turtles that are entangled get reported in time for them to be rescued; the rest most likely will not survive. Preventing entanglement without impacting fishing is a significant challenge. We continue to work with partners, including the fishing industry, to collect important information about these entanglements and discuss potential solutions.

Please report

The loggerhead turtle is one of the endangered sea turtle species found in the Gulf of Maine. Their large heads feature powerful jaw muscles which can crush prey like clams and sea urchins. NOAA photo.

The loggerhead turtle is one of the endangered sea turtle species found in the Gulf of Maine. Their large heads feature powerful jaw muscles which can crush prey like clams and sea urchins. NOAA photo.

We cannot do our work without reports from people like you who are on the water and see an entangled or injured turtle. We ask you to report sea turtle entanglements immediately to our marine animal hotline 1-866-755-6622 and stand by the turtle at a safe distance until you receive further instruction. Network members will respond quickly to assess the turtle, disentangle it safely and completely, and provide it with medical care, if necessary.

In some cases, factors such as distance from shore or weather prohibit responders from reaching the entangled turtle quickly. To prepare for these situations, fishermen participating in certain federally managed fisheries, including the American lobster fishery, are authorized under their individual fishery management plan’s Biological Opinions to disentangle turtles from gear. These fishermen have received a placard outlining sea turtle disentanglement techniques. However, it is still important to report entangled turtles to the marine animal hotline first, as a member of the network may be able to respond. The Disentanglement Network has specialized tools, training, and access to medical care that could mean the difference between life and death for an entangled turtle.

For additional information, contact the Protected Resources Division in NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office at 978-281-9328.

Ellen Keane is the Sea Turtle Bycatch Reduction Specialist at the Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office of NOAA.