By Helen Jiang and McKenzi Thi Murphy
The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation is working to rehabilitate 21 stranded sea turtles from local beaches following cold-stun season and the successful first year of their advanced patrolling efforts.
The season typically lasts from late October to early February. Throughout March, programs and lectures will be held by the foundation to educate the public regarding these sea turtles, the first of which is on March 7.
“All sea turtle species are either threatened or endangered,” Nicole Valenti, the education and volunteer coordinator, said. Sea turtles are reptiles meaning they cannot maintain a constant internal body temperature and must rely on external sources for heat, she explained. Affected turtles become buoyant and float to the surface when their bodies go into shock and shut down.
At the research center, two levels of training are now offered. Basic training teaches people how to recognize cold-stunned sea turtles. The new advanced patrol is geared towards volunteers who are willing to actively search for traumatized turtles and can transport them to the facilities.
The foundation had 233 level one beach walkers that year, and 26 level two rescue patrollers, Valenti said.
“We have a little camper, and we used to come Friday nights, camp out on the beach… sleep there and by the end of the first high tide we’d start,” Ronald Schvarztman, a level two volunteer at the foundation, said. He and his wife, Natalya patrolled hot spots where sea turtles tend to wash up.
“We found 11 [turtles] with Riverhead and one with Atlantic Marine,” Schvartztman said. “One week after [thanksgiving weekend] was when all the turtles started landing.”
Immediately after the stunned sea turtle arrives, they are assessed. “We have a class system, class one being the least cold stunned and four being the most,” Kristina Hansen, the Animal Care Supervisor at the Riverhead Foundation, said.
Turtle 88, a green sea turtle, was found on Fire Island on Nov. 12, showed signs of life, and was put into Class I.
“There’s a five-day treatment we provide to the turtles when they first come to the facility,” she said. “We want to get their temperature up to 55F on first day and 5 degrees more each day.” Some turtles receive antibiotics, and some go through blood tests, which can be done in-house.
“Their heart rate can get as low as 3 bpm [beats per minute],” Hansen said. Each turtle receives a specialized treatment plan, and most are released in the summer when water temperatures are a minimum 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cape Cod, annually, has the largest cold-stun wash-up in the country. In fact, many of Long Island’s stunned turtles get caught in currents in or around Cape Cod and drift down to the island’s north shores.
“We had 825 or so this year, which was the second highest count ever,” Robert Prescott, a wildlife biologist and director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, said, referring to Cape Cod. “There’s no heat allowed in the vehicle.” Transporters try to keep the turtles at approximately 55 degrees Celsius.
“Cold-stunning of Kemp’s ridley [turtles] within Cape Cod Bay has continued to increase over the past 40 years,” Lucas P. Griffin, a conservation biologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, said.
The lead researcher on a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts and University of Rhode Island on cold stunning, Griffin found one of the main factors in the increasing rate of cold-stranded sea turtles in Cape Cod Bay can be attributed to the warming seas.
This change has a ripple effect across ocean life. “Besides their intrinsic and economic value, all species of sea turtles play important roles in both the marine and terrestrial ecosystems,” Connie Y. Kot, a research associate of Duke University, said. “By functioning as predators or grazers within the food web, providing or transporting nutrients from one habitat to another, and many other activities we may not even be aware of or fully understand yet.”
The warming oceans affect more than just turtles. “Several fish (winter flounder, rainbow smelt, and tomcod), and lobsters, that used to be common here don’t live here or are vanishing because it’s too warm.” Carl Safina, a renowned ecologist and author, said. “Our winters have changed; they are more variable.”
When asked about the importance of sea turtles, Safina said, “Well, what is the significance of ballet, sports, or fashion? Beauty, uniqueness, excitement, each valuable for themselves in their own way. Same with turtles.”