Why More Sea Turtle Strandings Could Be Good News

Feb 3, 2014

Credit Mass Audubon

Nobody relishes the sight of sea turtles paralyzed by the cold, washed up on the shores of Cape Cod Bay. But rising numbers of sea turtle strandings may not be all bad news.

With its bent arm sticking out into the Atlantic, Cape Cod has a tendency to catch wayward southbound animals. Each fall, sea turtles - primarily Kemp’s ridleys, but also green and loggerhead sea turtles - stunned into paralysis by falling water temperatures wash up on the shores of Cape Cod Bay.

Over the years, a dedicated network of professionals and volunteers has sprung up to rescue these stranded animals. Volunteers with Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, known as walkers, comb the beaches from November until January. Stranded animals are collected and handed over to New England Aquarium for medical treatment and, if possible, release.

The past two years have both brought well above the average number of stranded turtles - over 400 last year, and 200 so far this year (the season is basically over, but the odd straggler may still wash up). Green and loggerhead turtles have also made up a larger proportion of strandings than in the past.

No one knows for sure why, but Bob Prescott, Director of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, offers two leading theories:

  1. Climate change: As water temperatures rise (and they've done so steadily for at least fifty years), turtles that usually stick to warmer waters down south may be venturing farther north and benefiting from the richness that the Gulf of Maine has to offer. Warmer temperatures lasting well into the fall may also tempt turtles stay longer, setting them up for cold-stunning if the weather suddenly turns cold.
  2. Growing populations: More turtles in our region will mean more strandings, climate change or no. Above-average numbers of strandings in the past two years may simply reflect increases in population sizes as a result of protective management strategies.

So hundreds of stranded sea turtles may not be all bad news.

Credit Mass Audubon