It was mid-summer 2020 when Connie Merigo, director of rescue and rehabilitation at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., could sense that the upcoming winter was going to be a rough one for New England’s sea turtle population. Merigo’s foresight is thanks to both the 30 years she’s been working with sea turtles and the well-oiled machine that is the East Coast network of people and organizations dedicated to helping sea turtles in distress, part of the national Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN), created by NOAA Fisheries in 1980.
“We have a sightings database, and over the summer people were reporting seeing more turtles in Boston than ever before,” said Merigo. “I got the feeling that something was going to happen and knew then that we had to get ready.”
‘Getting ready’ in the New England world of helping sea turtles can be likened to calling up a cavalry of turtle-loving individuals and organizations that will do almost anything to help the prehistoric animals. In Merigo’s case, she enlisted the help of multiple groups, including those at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the Mass Audubon Society, located about 100 miles south of Boston; and the National Marine Life Center, located in Bourne, Mass., about 60 miles south of Boston.
Throughout the summer, group members met weekly over Zoom to discuss the details of what would happen if facilities were to be overwhelmed by cold-stunned sea turtles come fall/winter. Of course, this was in the middle of the COVID shutdown, so Merigo and her cohorts also had to consider the implications for people.
“Everyone had their eyes on the prize; to keep people safe and help as many turtles as we could,” she said. “We knew it would be a tough year; we knew there would be fewer resources, but we have a shared spreadsheet where we can see who’d be on call at what time and how many turtles each facility would be able to accommodate.”
The plan detailed what each facility would physically do with stranded turtles. In a year without high cold stun numbers, turtles that came in would normally get a highly individualized care plan based on bloodwork and weight.
“If the turtle had low glucose levels, we’d address that, and so on,” said Merigo. “But we knew this winter that we wouldn’t have enough time and people to do that, so we approached this season with a herd management style and focused on saving as many as we could.”
By the time the first turtles were found stranded along the Cape Cod Bay in October, the plans were locked into place and the players knew exactly what to do. The year came in at the second highest number of stranded sea turtles in the New England region since the STSSN began keeping track. The level of coordination, not just among the aforementioned three facilities, but among more than 50 organizations, was that of military-grade coordination. It was important to transport the cold-stunned turtles to warmer climates as releasing them into the now-cold Atlantic Ocean would further harm them.
Spreadsheets spelling out protocols were distributed. Volunteers—hundreds of them walking for 90 days straight at every high tide—ambulance drivers, drivers transporting turtles to warmer climates via climate-controlled vehicles, and even pilots from an organization called Turtles Fly Too pitched in for the effort.
And in the end, the plan worked.
“Our success rate was over 88 percent—that is the percentage of stranded turtles that survived, which is unbelievable, especially in a busy season,” said Merigo. “The network is huge and all of their expertise helped enormously in this effort.”
More than 2,000 miles southeast of Merigo’s office, and about two months after the New England cold stun event had calmed down, Tom Schmid started getting concerned. As President and Chief Executive Officer of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas, he regularly looks at weather data and could see in early February 2021 that a storm was coming, but didn’t yet know the extent of it.
He and his team reached out to other zoos and aquariums in Texas as well as NGOs focused on rehabbing sea turtles. “A lot of this network has been honed in the last few decades because of the need for hurricane response,” he said. “The network itself has grown really strong.”
The storm—now known as recording-breaking Winter Storm Uri that killed more than 130 people, involved everything from sub-zero cold to tornadoes, and spanned from 13 February to 24 February—bore down on Corpus Christi the night of Sunday, 14 February. Schmid and his team had a few days to prepare, but the challenges were immense: not only did the network need get ready to accept a large number of cold-stunned turtles, but they needed to continue operating the Aquarium when the threat of losing power was closing in.
Within a few days, turtles started showing up on Texas beaches. Volunteers, NGOs, government agencies, non-profits, and AZA-accredited institutions banded together to bring them in to designated facilities.
“Numbers started going from 10 to 100 to 1,000,” said Schmid. “Until then, we were focused on rehabbing them, but at that point we went into crisis mode.”
The next five to seven days were a blur, and while the STSSN stepped up, so did surrounding corporations and facilities.
“All of the power had gone out in South Texas, no one had heat, people were concerned with staying warm themselves, and yet we still had hundreds of volunteers, boat captains, and truck drivers show up,” said Dr. Pat Burchfield, chief executive officer of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. “At one point, there were 4,800 cold stunned turtles being cared for in both the South Padre Island Convention Center and Sea Turtle Inc.
“There were caravans of cars—even RVs—bringing sea turtles. It was an amazing sight.”
The more news got out that turtles needed help, the more help arrived. The Southern Responder, a 300-foot oil spill response vessel, took turtles; as did the SpaceX South Texas Starship Launch Facility in Boca Chica Beach, Texas.
By the end of the storm, more than 12,000 sea turtles were recovered, making this cold stun event the largest in U.S. history. As of this writing, a little more than 4,000 have been released back into the Gulf of Mexico, and a few hundred are still being rehabbed.
The efforts taken on behalf of sea turtles are not cheap, and as of now, no federal funding exists to help. This issue is constantly on the mind of Maggie Ostdahl, conservation policy manager at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md. She focuses a good deal of her time on advocating for stronger support for the STSSN, saying the need is critical.
“A lot of organizations, private and non-profit, use money for fuel costs, transportation of turtles, medicines, costs of taking care of turtles, and trying to release them into the ocean; all of these funds come out of general operating budgets,” she said. “And in our case, and the case of many other institutions, operating budgets are down because of loss of ticket sales from COVID shutdowns.
“We aren’t talking about a small amount of money that organizations are spending on this effort. We know of more than 50 organizations that are spending a few hundred thousand dollars a year on keeping this up.”
Ostdahl is working with the government to identify pathways for federal funding. She’s doing this through outreach to Congressional and agency staffers in the hope that the federal government will authorize and appropriate annual sea turtle rescue funds, somewhat like what the NOAA Prescott Grant Program, which provides ongoing funding for recovery and treatment of the marine mammals.
The goal: to get this created in the next two or three years, maybe even less, she said.
Now a few months out from the crisis that hit Texas in February, Texas State Aquarium’s Schmid is filled with deep appreciation for the outpouring of support shown during one of the region’s hardest times.
“I remember Dan Ashe [AZA’s president and chief executive officer] put out a call to AZA directors saying our institution and others in Texas could use support, and within 24 hours almost 100 AZA organizations had made pledges in excess of $100,000,” he said. “It was more than we needed, and the majority will go to AZA SAFE American Turtles program and sea turtle conservation work more generally.
“But it reminded me that we have an amazing coalition of AZA facilities—and even network outside the AZA—and if anything happens anywhere, we will come together and do whatever it takes. Especially in a year when every zoo and aquarium has been challenged financially due to the pandemic, I was just amazed by the outpouring of support.”
Katie Morell is a writer based in Bend, Ore.