As the winter months carry on, I have read numerous news stories describing the plight of “cold-stunned” sea turtles becoming stranded across the east coast. Sea turtles are reptiles, making the incapable of regulating their own body temperatures. Warming temperatures can kickstart the turtles’ migration too early in the season, causing them to migrate northward. A sudden cold front can reduce ocean temperatures to under 50 degrees, at which temperature the turtles’ bodies suffer hypothermia and shut down. Turtles suffering hypothermia lose the ability to swim and become stranded in cold waters. Last year, a record-breaking number of “cold-stunned” sea turtles were stranded on beaches, and thousands were rescued by AZA-accredited aquariums, zoos, and other non-profit groups. Watch “What is cold-stunning?” by the National Aquarium.
AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos are often on the front lines of rescuing these animals. Last year was a record-breaking year for sea turtle rescues. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums rescued over 2,800 sea turtles, and rehabilitated nearly 4,400. Brevard Zoo alone rehabilitated 2,362 sea turtles, and Texas State Aquarium rehabilitated 1,247. In total, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums returned 3,441 sea turtles to the ocean last year. Texas State Aquarium and students from Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi recently developed an app that will make inputting and accessing data on rescued sea turtles easier and more efficient for the Aquarium staff working to save these animals.
This season alone, staff and volunteers at AZA-aquariums and zoos have saved hundreds of sea turtles stranded due to cold-stunning. New England Aquarium and Gladys Porter Zoo have been instrumental in rehabilitating thousands of sea turtles over the last forty years, as noted by researchers investigating the alarming increase of cold-stunning events. In December, National Aquarium in Baltimore cared for its first patients of the winter season, 30 Kemp's ridley and two green sea turtles, each named after the periodic table of elements. The North Carolina and South Carolina Aquariums partner with AZA members and other groups in our turtle stranding network, and take in sea turtles that washed up further north. The Oregon Coast Aquarium and Seattle Aquarium are the only rehabilitation facilities in the northwest United States authorized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to rehabilitate sea turtles, and have rescued endangered Pacific green sea turtles and olive ridley sea turtles.
After their initial rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles are sent to partners further south who can facilitate their release. This week, Florida Aquarium welcomed eight sea turtles to their brand-new, $4.1 million, two-story Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center. Rehabilitation is a slow process, and some turtles may never fully recover. Thankfully, AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos provide exceptional ongoing care to individuals who may not return to the ocean.
Of the six sea turtle species that are found in U.S. waters or nest on U.S. beaches, all are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Four of the 7 species worldwide are listed as "endangered" or "critically endangered" by IUCN, having experienced significant population declines. As an AZA SAFE species, we are dedicated to the conservation and protection of sea turtles. Some loggerheads are consumers, regulating populations of the other species like jellyfish and sea urchins, especially on coral reefs. Green sea turtles are herbivores, and provide an ecosystem benefit by foraging seagrass. Sea turtles also attract scuba divers and snorkelers, primarily in Caribbean and Central American countries where ecotourism is a large part of the economy. If this species disappears, we risk losing already vulnerable ocean habitat and functions. AZA-facilities will continue to work towards saving species, like the sea turtle through our AZA SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction, SSP (Species Survival Plan), and WTA (Wildlife Trafficking Alliance) programs.
As we endure the winter season, AZA members are well-prepared to engage in important recovery work for sea turtles and other animals. I am so proud of the hard work our community is doing for ocean life.