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Sad stranded turtles are a sign of conservation success!

4 minute read

Dr Peter Richardson

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery

21 Dec 2021

It's hard not to feel sad at the sight of a young and emaciated tropical turtle washing up on a freezing British beach – cold-stunned, comatose and a long, long way from home. But these increasingly frequent UK sightings could actually be a sign of their recovery.

Recent turtle sightings

A couple of weeks ago, the papers reported on Tally – a juvenile Kemp’s ridley turtle that washed up barely alive on Talacre Beach in Clwyd, North Wales after Storm Arwen. The turtle was reported to British Marine Life Divers Rescue (BDMLR) and promptly taken to Anglesey Sea Zoo for rehabilitation.

Another young Kemp’s ridley was reported to the Marine Conservation Society wildlife sightings page from the Isle of Harris the following day. Sadly that one wasn’t so lucky and was dead when discovered by beach walkers.

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Kemp's ridley turtle washed up on the Isle of Harris

Credit: Ruth A Hamilton

Turtles in UK waters

These strandings are not unusual. Kemp’s ridleys are in fact the third most commonly reported sea turtle in our seas, with 69 sightings reported in UK and Irish waters between 1748 and 2020. They are long way behind loggerheads (264) and leatherbacks (2108), which are seen way more often.

Other sea turtle species recorded in UK and Irish waters include the green turtle (15 records), one hawksbill in Ireland in 1983, and an olive ridley turtle that stranded on Anglesey in 2016. Named Menai, that turtle was also taken to Anglesey Sea Zoo for rehabilitation.

The only sea turtle species not recorded here is the flatback turtle, but they only occur in the seas around Australia, so it would be nothing short of a miracle if a flatback turned up in Blighty!

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Winter visitors in need of help

Leatherbacks regularly migrate to UK waters and time their arrival so they can gorge on our abundant summer jellyfish blooms – happy, healthy, live and very fat adult leatherbacks are spotted swimming in our seas every summer.

All the other sea turtle species are referred to as hard-shelled sea turtles because they have tortoise-like shells, unlike the flexible, leathery shell of the leatherback.

Leatherbacks can forage in waters as cool as 5 degrees Celsius, but the hard-shelled turtles prefer warmer waters – they aren’t supposed to be here. Having strayed into the unfavourable North Atlantic Drift current, they are drawn inexorably into our chilly seas. They stop feeding at temperatures lower than 15 degrees Celsius, and become comatose after prolonged exposure to temperatures lower than 10 degrees Celsius.

The hard shells are almost always recorded in UK waters in winter. They are usually small juveniles less able to swim against currents, and are always emaciated having not fed for days.

Leatherbacks regularly migrate to UK waters and time their arrival so they can gorge on our abundant summer jellyfish blooms – happy, healthy, live and very fat adult leatherbacks are spotted swimming in our seas every summer.

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery

We also see larger loggerheads with a front flipper missing, cleanly cut and almost certainly the result of an interaction with fishing gear on the high seas.

An angry, entangled loggerhead has a powerful bite, and it’s easier for fishermen to remove a snapping loggerhead from their gear with a swift machete hack than to risk fingers trying to carefully disentangle it. These tragically compromised turtles also struggle to swim against the North Atlantic Drift.

Rehabilitating stranded turtles

In the 20 years I have been working on turtles in the UK I have seen a few of these small stranded turtles and they can be a sorry sight – although with the right expert care and treatment they can be revived.

I remember visiting the Sealife Centre in 2007. There had been a few winter turtle strandings and the staff were caring for a loggerhead and a Kemp’s ridley.

It was wonderful to see these chubby, well-fed youngsters swimming around their warm pools in preparation for airlift to the Canary Islands where the successfully rehabilitated turtles are eventually released back into warmer seas.

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Rehabilitating a Kemp's ridley turtle, SeaLife Centre

Credit: Peter Richardson

Signs of recovery

Indeed, we shouldn’t be too sad about these strandings. A recent analysis by the University of Exeter (Botterel et al. 2020) confirmed that incidences of hard-shelled turtle strandings in UK and Irish waters have increased since the 1980s.

For the Kemp’s ridley this is a reflection of good news. Kemp's ridleys nest only on a couple of beaches in the Gulf of Mexico. By far the biggest rookery is in Mexico (Ranch Nuevo, Michoacán) and a very much smaller one has been established in Texas (Padre Island).

After devastating declines since the late 1940s due to poaching on the nesting beaches and bycatch in shrimp trawls, Kemp's ridley turtles were on the brink of extinction in the 1980s. The number of nests reached a record low of 702 in 1985, representing fewer than 250 nesting females.

Since then, the governments of Mexico and USA have invested in strict protection on the nesting beaches and introduced mandatory turtle-excluder devices on shrimp trawl nets – massively reducing bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico.

This has resulted in the Kemp’s ridley recovering, with 2020 estimates suggesting there are now about 7000 to 9000 nesting females in the population. An amazing result, but still a species in need of conservation support – the numbers are still relatively low and they remain the world’s rarest species of sea turtle.

But this rebounding population is the reason why we are likely to see more juvenile Kemps ridley stranding on UK shores these days. More and more hatchlings are being produced at the nesting beaches and so more juveniles now show up on our shores. These sad strandings are a sign of a fantastic conservation success.

More and more hatchlings are being produced at the nesting beaches and so more juveniles now show up on our shores. These sad strandings are a sign of a fantastic conservation success.

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery

What to do if you find a turtle

With all this stormy weather we expect to see more juvenile turtles stranding on our shores over the winter. If you find a turtle on the beach you can help. DO NOT PUT IT BACK IN THE SEA. If possible, get it away from the surf in a sheltered place and report it to the relevant number using the UK Turtle Code.

Experts will come to collect it whether it's dead or alive, because even dead specimens can provide valuable scientific information from the postmortems carried out under the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (it also investigates turtles!).

Please also report your turtle on the wildlife sightings page of the Marine Conservation Society website.

Let’s hope that Tally the Talacre Kemp’s ridley – and any other turtles rescued from our beaches this winter – respond well to a bit of UK hospitality and eventually make it back to warmer seas.

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