Kemp's ridley turtle
Kemp's ridley turtle

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The Kemps ridley turtle is the rarest of all sea turtles. It weighs between 80-100 pounds and the mature adult is an olive green color. They nest in large numbers known as "arribadas."

The ridleys have declined significantly in recent years due mainly to predation and poaching and the fact that their nesting areas have dwindled to a single beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. In 1947, 40,000 ridleys nested and in 1981 the number was reduced to less than 500. Ridley turtles dwell in the waters of the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. On rare occasions, ocean currents have swept ridleys as far as Europe.

Stranding is common problem among sea turtles in the northern Atlantic. This can occur when a turtle becomes trapped in northern waters during the winter months. Scientists hypothesize that migration, distribution, and current patterns may influence these entrapments. Frigid water temperatures reduce the turtles' body temperatures below normal and they wash ashore in a condition called cold-stunned. This type of stranding is not unusual and occurs among loggerhead and ridley sea turtles. Each winter, several cold-stunned turtles are rescued from Cape Cod beaches and taken to the New England Aquarium for rehabilitation as part of the Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation program.

When they are active, sea turtles must swim to the ocean surface to breathe every few minutes. When they are resting, they can remain underwater for as long as 2 hours without breathing.

loggerhead turtle
Loggerhead turtle

Although sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean, adult females must return to land in order to lay their eggs. Scientists believe that nesting female turtles return to the same beach on which they were born. Often sea turtles must travel long distances from their feeding grounds to their nesting beaches. Just how sea turtles find their nesting beaches is unknown.

All six species of sea turtles in the U.S. are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 . These are the green, hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley sea turtles. The hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, and leatherback sea turtles are listed as endangered under the ESA. The loggerhead, green and olive ridley sea turtles are listed as threatened, except for breeding populations of green sea turtles in Florida and on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and breeding populations of olive ridley sea turtles on the Pacific coast of Mexico, which are listed as endangered.

The green sea turtle is a medium to large brownish sea turtle with a radiating or mottled pattern of markings on the shell. The head is small in comparison to the other sea turtles and the biting edge of the lower jaw is serrated. Adult shell lengths range in size from 0.9-1.1 meters (36-43 inches) and weights average 90-137 kilograms (200-300 pounds). Primarily a tropical herbivorous species, the juveniles frequently occur in Florida waters, especially in areas abundant with sea grasses. The greatest cause of decline for green turtles has been commercial harvest for eggs and food, as well as leather and jewelry.

The hawksbill sea turtle is a small to medium sea turtle with a very attractively colored shell of thick overlapping scales. This shell is the source of "tortoise shell." Hawksbill turtles have a distinct, hawk-like beak. Adults range in size from 0.8-1.0 meters (30-36 inches) shell length and weigh 45-90 kilograms (100-200 pounds). The hawksbill turtle is a shy tropical reef dwelling species that feeds primarily on sponges. Commercial exploitation is the major cause of the continued decline of the hawksbill sea turtle. There is a continuing demand for the hawksbill's shell as well as other products including leather, oil, perfume, and cosmetics. The hawksbill shell commands high prices (currently $225/kilogram), a major factor preventing effective protection.

leatherback turtle
Leatherback turtle

The leatherback is the largest sea turtle. Individuals have attained a shell length of 1.85 meters (6 feet) and weights of 637 kilograms (1,400 pounds). Unlike other species of sea turtle, the leatherback does not have scales. Instead, it is covered with a firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges or keels. Leatherback sea turtles are a highly migratory species that nests in the tropics and ranges as far north as Canada and the northern Pacific ocean. The leatherback sea turtle feeds primarily on jellyfish. The species faces significant threats from incidental take in commercial fisheries and marine pollution, as well as from the harvest of eggs and flesh.

diagram of turtle excluder device

The Turtle Excluder Device or TED is a grid of bars with an opening either at the top or the bottom. The grid is situated back in the shrimp trawl before the bag (codend). Small animals like shrimp slip through the bars and are caught in the bag end of the trawl. Large animals such as turtles and sharks, when caught in the trawl, strike the grid bars and are ejected out of the net through the opening.

Contact and credits

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Taken in part from “Being a bouillabaisse of fascinating facts about fish: the most-asked questions,” NOAA Magazine, April and July of 1973.

Unless otherwise noted all color artwork is © Ray Troll 2002, © Terry Pyles, colorization 2002. These images may not be utilized in whole or in part by any entity other than NMFS without the express permission of NMFS' Office of Constituent Services and the copyright artist, Ray Troll.