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Sea Turtles of New York

Sea turtles on shore in New York are cold-stunned and need immediate medical attention. Do not touch the animal. Call New York State's 24-hour Stranding Hotline at (631) 369-9829 and follow the instructions below.

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 warm months, four species of sea turtles can be found: green, Kemp's ridley, leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles (see table below). They remain local to New York from approximately May through November and are particularly fond of the warmer waters in coastal bays and the Long Island Sound. By the end of November, they begin their migration south to warmer nesting waters.

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Green Sea Turtle. Andy Bruckner, NOAA

Status in New York: Threatened
Federal Status: 3 of the 11 distinct populations are endangered; all other populations are threatened.

  • Diet: Algae and sea grass. This makes their cartilage and fat green, giving them their name.
  • Size & Lifespan: Grow to 3 feet long and 350 pounds. On average they live for 60-70 years.

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.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Sea Turtle. NOAA Fisheries

Status in New York: Threatened
Federal Status: Threatened

  • Diet: Shellfish (horseshoe crabs, spider crabs, clams, mussels
  • Size & Lifespan: Grow to 3 feet long and up about 250 pounds. They live between 70-80 years old.

Loggerhead sea turtles are the most frequently seen sea turtle in New York waters, though they inhabit different regions during different parts of their lives. 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.

Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Status in New York: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered

leatherback sea turtle, photo by NOAA
Leatherback sea turtle (Photo: NOAA)
  • Diet: Primarily jellyfish. Their throats' are lined with backward facing spines to help retain their food.
  • Size & Lifespan: Grow to 6 feet long and up to 2,000 pounds. Their lifespan is currently unknown.

The leatherback sea turtle is a unique and phenomenal species. They are one of the largest reptiles on Earth. 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 sea turtles. Leatherbacks are the most pelagic sea turtle and, due to their flexible shell.

Leatherbacks can regulate their body temperature and 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. Leatherbacks are often seen on the south shore of Long Island, in the NY Bight region, and within the Long Island Sound.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
Kemp's ridley sea turtle, photo by NOAA
Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Photo: NOAA)

Status in New York: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered

  • Diet: Powerful jaws help them crush crabs, clams, mussels, and shrimp. Also eat fish, sea urchins, and jellyfish.
  • Size & Lifespan: Grow to 2 feet long and up to 100 pounds. Live at least 30 years.

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, 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.

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 and Fishing Gear

When sea turtles are at the surface to breathe, or while feeding or mating in shallow areas, they can be injured or even killed from blunt-force trauma by moving vessels. Vessel strikes are likely to occur more often than reported, so it is important for vessel operators and crew to keep an eye out for sea turtles and other marine animals to avoid collisions. Sea turtles can become trapped and drown in fishing gear that is submerged underwater, or become entangled in ropes resulting in serious injuries that may affect their ability to feed, swim and reproduce. The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society staff is trained in sea turtle disentanglement.

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

Marine Pollution

Marine debris is known to be mistaken for prey and consumed by sea turtles. Ingestion of items like plastic bags can cause blockages, starvation, and other digestive injuries that may eventually lead to death.

Coastal development can degrade or destroy important sea turtle habitat such as eelgrass beds. In addition to increased cold-stun risk, climate change is altering physical ocean properties like salinity and oxygen levels, which can cause shifts in the range, abundance, and quality of prey. Perhaps most importantly, changes in ocean currents could affect sea turtle migration and the survival of oceanic-stage juveniles, of which very little information is known.

Climate Change

The Northeast US is experiencing more rapid change in the form of rising water temperature than any other place on earth. As a result of this climate change impact, warmer water temperatures cause sea turtles to remain in the area longer than usual. When there is a sudden drop in water temperature before sea turtles migrate out of the area, they can fall 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.

For information on marine life stranding groups visit, the New York Marine Rescue Center and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (links leave DEC website).

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

New York Bight Sea Turtle Workshop

The New York Ocean Action Plan (OAP) identified the need to improve understanding about the abundance, distribution and behavior of sea turtles across the New York Bight. In January 2018, NYSDEC hosted a New York Bight Sea Turtle Workshop that was attended by numerous partners, academic researchers, and environmental organizations. An overview of the workshop's findings can be found by reviewing the Summary Report of the New York Bight Sea Turtle Workshop (PDF).

What To Do If You Encounter a Stranded Sea Turtle

  1. Call the NYS 24-Hour Stranding Hotline at (631) 369-9829
    Sea turtles that come onshore in New York are cold-stunned and need medical attention. Immediately call the Stranding Hotline and relay as much information as possible. 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 reach you if they have any questions.
  2. Do not put the turtle back in the water
    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. Cold-stunned sea turtles are lethargic; they can easily drown if placed back in the water. Any further sudden changes in temperature can lead to death.
  3. Note the location of the sea turtle and if possible, mark the location
    The rescue team needs a detailed explanation of where the animal is located. If possible, write down the coordinates and/or mark the turtle's location with something, such as a stick or driftwood, that will be easy for the team to find.

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  • Contact for this Page
  • Division of Marine Resources
    Marine Protected Resources Unit
    205 North Belle Mead Road, East Setauket NY, 11733
    631-444-0430
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