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Sea Turtles of New York

As water temperatures begin to rise in late spring and early summer, the waters of New York become more suitable for sea turtles. During these warming months, there are several species of sea turtles that visit New York waters: green, Kemp's ridley, leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles. They can be found from May through November in waters off Long Island, including Long Island Sound and Long Island's eastern bays. By the end of November, they'll migrate south in search of warmer waters.

Sea turtles are highly migratory species and face many threats throughout their range. You can help protect sea turtles by familiarizing yourself with these threats and current mitigation methods. For information on what to do if you see a sea turtle on the beach, please review the sea turtle stranding protocol.

Tagged Kemp's ridley sea turtle being released

Sea Turtles of New York

The four species of sea turtles that can be found in New York waters are either threatened or endangered at the state level and federally protected under the U.S Endangered Species Act. Because they are highly migratory, they are protected under several international treaties as well: The Convention on Migratory Species, the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol of the Cartagena Convention, and the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles. In New York, all species are protected by Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) and the New York Code of Rules and Regulations, which protects the individual animals and their habitats.

Here is a closer look at these species:

Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas
Status in New York: Threatened Federal: 3 of the 11 distinct populations are endangered; all other populations are threatened.

green sea turtle swimming, photo from NOAA
Green sea turtle (Photo: NOAA)

The green sea turtle is the largest of the hard-shelled turtles, measuring around 3 feet long and weighing up to 350 pounds. Though they will also feed on marine invertebrates, the species' primary diet of algae and sea grass gives their body fat a green color, and also gives them their name. Green sea turtles are a wide-ranging species that, in the U.S Atlantic waters, can be found from Massachusetts to Texas. During the warmer months of the year, juveniles and occasionally adults are sighted in sea grass beds off the eastern side of Long Island and free-swimming in pelagic environments. They have also been sighted foraging in the Peconic Estuary. U.S green sea turtles nest from June through September in the southeastern United States.

Recent data derived from annual nesting females and annual nests shows that all populations of green turtles in North America are stable or increasing.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles, Caretta caretta
Status in New York: Threatened Federal Status: Threatened

loggerhead sea turtle, photo by NOAA
Loggerhead sea turtle (Photo: NOAA)

Loggerhead sea turtles are the most frequently seen sea turtle in New York waters. They average around 3 feet in length and are named after their conspicuously large, block-like head. Additionally, their powerful jaws are well suited for their diet of hard-shelled prey. In New York, their prey consists mainly of spider, horseshoe, green, and swimming crabs. They will also feed on mollusks (whelk) and other marine invertebrates.

Loggerhead sea turtles inhabit different regions during different parts of their lives. In New York, for example, juveniles are frequently found in nearshore bays and Long Island Sound, while other age groups, including adults, are found up to 40+ miles off the southern Long Island coast. As juveniles age into adults, their habitat preferences shift to more shallow water habitats with open ocean access, such as the Florida Bay.

Even though they're protected in the U.S, loggerhead turtles and eggs are hunted extensively in many parts of the world. The loggerhead population has been declining through much of its range based on population trends derived from nesting surveys.

Leatherback Sea Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered

leatherback sea turtle, photo by NOAA
Leatherback sea turtle (Photo: NOAA)

The leatherback sea turtle is a unique and phenomenal species. They are one of the largest reptiles on Earth; they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and reach up to two meters long, nearly the length of a standard door. The leatherback sea turtle gets its name from its large, barrel-shaped body covered with leathery skin (as opposed to the hard, bony shells of other species found in NY). Leatherbacks are the most pelagic sea turtle and, due to their flexible shell, can dive up to 4,200 feet for as long as 85 minutes!

Because Leatherbacks can regulate their body temperature, they are able to travel farther north, giving them the largest range of any reptile species. Juveniles and adults forage along the east coast of the US and Canada, and their distributions and movements are believed to correlate with seasonally abundant prey. Females, males and sub adults who forage in the North Atlantic have been shown to make return migrations to key feeding areas, targeting jellyfish and tunicates. Leatherbacks are often seen on the south shore of Long Island, in the NY Bight region, and within the Long Island Sound.

In addition to the international treaties specified above, this wide-ranging pelagic species is also protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). In 2007, the Turtle Expert Working Group identified seven main populations of nesting Leatherbacks throughout the Atlantic Ocean. All populations, except for the western Caribbean and West Africa populations, are stable or increasing.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle, Lepidochelys kempii
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered

Kemp's ridley sea turtle, photo by NOAA
Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Photo: NOAA)

The Kemp's ridley sea turtle is the second most commonly seen sea turtle in New York. They're the smallest of the sea turtles and are identifiable by their heart-shaped carapace. Juveniles, or those between the ages of 2 and 5, can be found within shallow-benthic environments of Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Gardiner's Bay and Peconic Estuary, and less frequently in Jamaica Bay, lower NY Harbor and Great South Bay. Kemp's ridley are shallow water benthic feeders; their diet consists primarily of swimming crabs, but also includes fish, jellyfish and mollusks. In New York, they generally feed on spider, rock and lady crabs.

Based on trends derived from nesting beaches, most populations appear to be stable or increasing.

For more information about sea turtles in New York, please visit The Riverhead Foundation's webpage or the NOAA's Sea Turtle webpage. (Links leave DEC's website).

Threats

There are many significant and increasing threats to sea turtles throughout their range. Some common threats of concern in New York are:

Vessel strikes:
When sea turtles are at the surface to breath or while feeding or mating in shallow areas, they can become injured or even killed by blunt-force trauma from moving vessels. Vessel strikes can occur anywhere throughout their range, and are likely to occur more often than reported. While out on the water, it is important for vessel operators and crew to keep an eye out for sea turtles and other marine animals to avoid collisions.

Entangled leatherback sea turtle
Entangled leatherback sea turtle that was later rescued
by NYSDEC law enforcement.

Fishery Interactions:
Sea turtles may become trapped or entangled in gear associated with any types of fisheries, including net, pot/trap, trawl and longline fisheries. Sea turtles can become trapped and drown in gear that is submerged underwater, or become entangled in lines and ropes that result in serious injuries that may affect their ability to feed, dive, swim and reproduce. In addition, other gear types, such as dredges, can destroy habitat and crush or entrap sea turtles. However, certain gear types can be modified to reduce mortality of sea turtles..

Pollution:
Whether it is from fishing gear or other unwanted trash in the ocean, marine debris is an ongoing threat to sea turtles. Debris such as plastic bags, plastic pellets, plastic and Styrofoam pieces, tar balls, and balloons can be mistaken as prey and consumed. Ingestion of these foreign items can cause blockages, starvation, or other digestive injuries in sea turtles, and even lead to mortality.

Contaminants can pose a threat in the marine environment and have been identified in all four species of sea turtles found in New York. Contaminants can include: persistent chlorinated hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, lead, mercury, copper, zinc and other toxic metals. Even though the total effects of these contaminates are unknown, there is concern that elevated levels of contaminates could lead to immunosuppression and hormonal imbalances. Chemicals from accidental oil spills have also been found to lead to immunosuppression, chronic health issues or mortality of sea turtles and other marine species.

Destruction/degradation of habitat:
Coastal development and alterations can lead to destruction or degradation of sea turtle habitat. Foraging habitats, such as the eelgrass beds used by green sea turtles, may be destroyed by development and shoreline/ecosystem alterations. Additionally, noise produced during construction can have negative behavioral and physiological effects on sea turtles. Studies have shown that sea turtles exposed to certain levels of low frequency sound may spend more time at the surface and/or move out of the area. Increased vessel traffic in construction sites can also lead to increased collisions or exclusion from these areas.

Climate change:
Climate change is believed to have a significant effect on sea turtles throughout their range. In New York, and other areas in the Northeast region, ocean waters are now remaining warm well into the fall. This, followed by sudden, sharp temperature drop, is leading to an increase in the number of cold-stunned juvenile sea turtles. In addition to rising water temperatures, changes in ice coverage, salinity, oxygen levels and circulation can cause shifts in in the range and abundance of their prey. Changes in currents could also affect sea turtle migration and survival of oceanic-stage juveniles. Ultimately, these shifts could alter the suitability of New York habitats, as well as habitats in other parts of sea turtle ranges. However, it is possible that changing temperatures could lead to conditions that are more favorable for sea turtles.

Cold-stunning:
Sudden changes in water temperature can lead to sea turtles falling victim to cold-stunning, a hypothermic condition that results in a lethargic state. Unless the turtles wash ashore and are rescued by stranding groups, cold-stunning often results in mortality from turtles drifting to sea. Normally, sea turtles leave the New York area by mid-November and migrate south to warmer water. In recent years, however, they've been staying in the area longer, which could be due to warmer annual temperatures as a result of climate change. Every year, one of Long Island's marine mammal and sea turtle rescue organization, The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, leads the response to cold-stunned turtles. For more information about sea turtle standings, visit The Riverhead Foundation's website and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society's webpage. (Links leave DEC's website).

For more information about these and other threats, please visit the NOAA Fisheries Threats to Sea Turtles webpage. (Link leaves DEC's website).

What To Do If You Encounter a Stranded Sea Turtle

1. Do not put the turtle back in the water
Sea turtles that come onshore in New York are cold-stunned and need medical attention. Please do not touch the animal, put the animal back in the water, or remove the animal from the beach. These are federally protected animals and are only to be handled by authorized personnel.

2. Note the location of the sea turtle and if possible, mark the location
In order for rescue teams to find stranded animals, they must be provided with a detailed explanation of where the animal is located. Be sure to note the location and details about the animal and its location. If possible, write down the coordinates to provide rescue teams. Mark the turtle's location with something, such as a stick or driftwood that will allow rescue volunteers to easily find the sea turtle.

3. Call the New York State Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline, (631) 369-9829
If you see a stranded sea turtle on New York's beaches, immediately call the NYS Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline with as much information as you have. If you leave a voice message, be sure to include very specific directions and information, as well as your name and phone number so the responders can call back if they have any questions.

Sea Turtle Conservation in New York

Tagged Kemp's ridley being released, 2014
Kemp's ridley sea turtle that was tagged and
released by The Riverhead Foundation in 2014.

NYSDEC works closely with federal agencies and non-profit organizations to properly monitor sea turtles in New York State. In 2014, the NYSDEC Marine Protected Resources (MPR) Unit provided the Riverhead Foundation with acoustic tags for sea turtles who are being released, typically at the end of summer, after being treated for cold stunning or injury. Information derived from these tags allows The Riverhead Foundation and NYSDEC to track the turtle's movements, habitat use and determine if the animal was successfully rehabilitated. In addition to tagging data, entanglement and stranding data is also provided to the NYSDEC by the Riverhead Foundation and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Observer Program provides information regarding sea turtle bycatch, which informs biologists what types of gear are unintentionally catching sea turtles. The MPR Unit is currently carrying out some monitoring of sea turtles in the New York Bight region as part of the New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program that began in March 2017. Even though the main objective of this survey is to monitor large whales, information of other species in this region is also recorded. In addition, the NYSDEC, MPR Unit will be holding a sea turtle experts workshop in the winter of 2018 to determine the best way to monitor sea turtles in New York. The resulting comprehensive monitoring program is expected to begin sometime in 2018-2019.

What You Can Do To Help Protect Sea Turtles

Want to help marine animals? Here are some simple, everyday things you can do to help protect the marine ecosystem and the animals within it!

1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink: This is something you may hear frequently, but these are simple steps to help protect marine species!

  • Reduce the amount of materials you use, which will ultimately reduce the amount of waste you create.
  • Reuse and repurpose items that you may no longer use.
  • Recycle everything, from plastic to e-waste! Making an effort to separate your items for recycling will help reduce the number of items ending up in landfill.
  • Rethink your daily activities, the materials you use and the items you discard. There are many simple changes we can make in our lifestyles to help the environment, which ultimately help marine animals.

For more information, visit the NYSDEC Recycling and Composting webpage.

2. Don't litter: Though it may happen accidentally, unwanted trash makes its way just about everywhere, including our waterbodies. If you're unable to find a trash or recycling receptacle right away, hold on to your garbage until you can properly dispose of it. Learn more about waste management on the NYSDEC Waste Management webpage.

3. Don't release balloons or lanterns: The intentional release of balloons into the environment is extremely inconsiderate and potentially fatal for marine species. Balloons and plastic bags are commonly mistaken as prey (such as jellyfish) by many marine species, such as sea turtles. Once ingested, the animal's digestive tract can be blocked, causing it to eventually starve to death. If possible, try avoiding helium balloons and plastic bags entirely to reduce the possibility of them getting away and contributing to pollution. Visit the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service webpage (Link leaves DEC's website) for more information about balloons and wildlife.

4. Volunteer your time and make donations:
There are many organizations that are fighting to protect ocean habitats and marine wildlife. Getting involved at a local level is a great way to help marine species. Consider donating to or volunteering with local organizations. Beach and park clean ups are a great opportunity to connect the community and help protect the environment. If you can't find a local event, just gather your friends and family members and create your own!

5. Stay Informed and share your knowledge:
One of the best things you can do is to stay informed and continue to learn about the issues the ocean faces. The more you learn, the more you'll want to help ensure the marine ecosystem remains healthy. As you continue to educate yourself, you can share your knowledge with those around you and continue to inform others of how crucial it is to protect the marine environment.