Thousands of sea turtles end up injured or dying along the U.S. coast every year. The lucky ones find their way to rehabilitation facilities, where staff and volunteers do all they can to get the animal back into the wild.
It can be a long and expensive process. "Turtles are really resilient, but they heal really slowly," says Jennifer Dittmar, manager of the animal rescue program at National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. The sea turtles that pass through her facility generally stay a minimum of three months and often longer, depending on the severity of their injuries or illness, she says. The cost for such a stay can run up to tens of thousands of dollars. (See pictures of sea turtles.)
Six of the world's seven sea turtle species are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. There isn't enough data on the seventh species—the flatback sea turtle—to know its conservation status.
The precarious condition of sea turtle species is due to a number of issues, some of which can land a turtle in rehab. The number one issue is entanglement in fishing gear such as lines or nets, says Roderic B. Mast, president and CEO of the Oceanic Society and co-chair of the IUCN marine turtle specialist group.
"I've actually fished turtles out of the Pacific that are so wrapped up in lines that they can't even move their flippers," says Mast, who is based in Washington, D.C. The turtles can get so entangled that the lines end up severing a limb.
Sea turtles can also be the victims of boat strikes or inadvertently consume plastics floating in the ocean. Studies looking at dead sea turtles washed ashore in Florida found that more than 40 percent of the animals have plastic in their guts, Mast says. "Oftentimes that plastic is considered to have killed them."
Cold stunning can also be a problem, says Dittmar. "Cold stunning in sea turtles is basically like hypothermia in humans," she explains. These reptiles inhabit warm water, and when the ocean around the mid-Atlantic states starts to turn cold-usually around October-sea turtles head south for the winter. But not all of them make it to warmer waters before the chilly temperatures hit. (See "Climate Change Will Test Turtles' Mettle.")
Cold stunning can open up a sea turtle to illnesses including pneumonia or joint infections, Dittmar says.
It's hard to predict what the staff of a rehabilitation center will see in terms of injuries or illness in the turtles they help from year to year. Although Dittmar says that most of their cases tend to be due to cold stunning, facilities elsewhere, such as the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in North Carolina, get much more variety.
The North Carolina facility can release anywhere between 40 and 75 sea turtles annually, says Jean Beasley, the center's director. They see entanglements and turtles caught on fishing hooks, as well as cold stunning victims. And although they mostly treat loggerhead turtles, some years they will also get a lot of young green turtles.
"We are seeing increased numbers of patients over the years," says Beasley. The greater numbers could be the result of an increase in sea turtles, or of a heightened awareness that people should bring injured turtles to the attention of rehabilitation centers, she says.
"We would love to be out of business," Beasley says, "but I don't think that that's going to happen any time soon."
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