If you’re out walking the beach this winter, keep an eye open for stranded sea turtles. Winter storms along the Pacific can push sea turtles northward into colder waters, where they quickly grow weak and end up stranded on Northwest beaches.
Pacific green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) are the two most commonly encountered species that strand on Oregon beaches, and both are classified as endangered. Green and olive ridley turtles have extensive global ranges and breed in warm waters, including along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Most of the sea turtles recorded in Oregon likely originate from this coastal Mexico population.
“Sea turtles do not reach Oregon beaches unless injured or sick, and once stranded, they require immediate specialized care to survive,” said Jim Burke, Director of Animal Husbandry at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. “Last winter, four hypothermic turtles were recovered from Pacific Northwest beaches—a record for the region.” If ocean conditions and weather patterns continue as they have over the last couple of years, more turtles are expected to arrive in the future.
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 (Service) to provide the specialized care sea turtles require. These care facilities were at their maximum capacity with four turtles last year, so the Service is examining ways to increase rehabilitation capabilities should more turtles arrive.
“The recovery of stranded turtles is always a group effort,” said Laura Todd, Newport Field Office Supervisor for the Service. “Reports from the public, emergency transport from the beach, intensive care at the treatment facilities, return to warmer waters, and eventual release are all crucial steps in the process. This work couldn’t be done without highly capable partners like the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the U. S. Coast Guard, and SeaWorld.”
Such teamwork is the cornerstone of recovering any threatened or endangered species. Cooperation between the public, federal and state agencies and partner organizations are the hallmark of a successful conservation program and key to halting the decline of our sea turtle populations.
“Rehabilitation returns reproductively viable individuals to the wild breeding population that otherwise would not have survived, which contributes to species recovery. Rehabilitation efforts also help us prepare for catastrophic events such as oil spills or disease by establishing clinical familiarity with listed species,” said Todd.
The Service urges anyone who finds a sea turtle on the beach to immediately note its location, remain nearby to observe it if possible and contact the Oregon State Police Tipline at 800-452-7888 or the Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN) in Oregon, Washington, and California at 1-866-767-6114. The MMSN and its partner organizations, including Seaside Aquarium, have proved invaluable in reaching stranded turtles quickly and transporting them to authorized care facilities. The Aquarium is open every day this winter (except December 25) from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information visit aquarium.org or call (541) 867-3474.
Information and photos by the Oregon Coast Aquarium