SREL Reprint #2168






Stephen J. Morreale
Center for the Envirorunent, Comell University, Rice Hall, Ithaca, N.Y. 14853-5601

Vincent J. Burke
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Drawer E, Aiken, S.C. 29802 and
Department of Zoology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602

Throughout coastal habitats of the Northeast, juveniles of three species of cheloniid sea turtles, the Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and green turtle (Chelonia mydas), occur each year on a seasonal basis (Morreale and Standora 1989; 1990; 1991; 1992a; Burke et al 1991). Also included among the itinerant inhabitants of northeastern waters is the endangered leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Although infrequent in estuarine habitats, adult-sized leatherback turtles are distributed throughout the near-shore waters of the Northeast during the warmer months (Shoop and Kenney 1992). Given the endangered status of sea turtles, there is an urgent need to protect habitats used by sea turtles throughout their ranges. Because northeastern inshore and near-shore waters sustain sea turtles during critical early developmental stages, we believe this region is of major importance to sea turtle populations in the Atlantic.

During the first several years of life, sea turtles are transformed from vulnerable hatchlings weighing less than 3.5 ounces (100 grams) to predatory juveniles weighing from 10 to 200 pounds (5 to 100 kilograms). Over the course of this early development, sea turtles can be transported over thousands of miles and dispersed among a variety of marine environments. It is hypothesized that hatchling sea turtles leave their natal beaches in the tropics and southeastern US, and travel into the open sea where they spend their early years, presumably as pelagic surface feeders (Carr an@ Meylan 1982; Carr 1986a; Carr 1986b; Witherington ancl Salmon 1992). After attaining straight-line carapace lengths ranging from 8 to 18 inches (20 to 45 cm) in the case of Kemp's ridleys and green turtles, and from 12 to 20 inches (30 to 50 cm) for the loggerhead, juveniles undergo a behavioral shift and move into inshore waters. There are several inshore habitats along the east coast where juvenile sea turtles have been observed. Many of these habitats have been purported to be Of critical importance to Atlantic populations of turtles, including east-ceiitral Florida (Witherington and Ehrhart 1989), Chesapeake Bay (Lutcavage and Musick 1985), New York (Morreale et al 1992), and New England (Lazell 1980). The potential importance of New York waters and the observed annual influx of juvenile sea turtles provided impetus for our intensive studies on their ecology in the northeastern region.

It is the goal of this report to summarize from our extensive research those ecological findings that are pertinent to,the conservation of sea turtles in the northeastern US. A main objective was to identify specific threats and causes of mortality to sea turtles in these waters. We have also endeavored to provide feasible recommendations for future conservation practices.

SREL Reprint #2168

Morreale, S.J. and V.J. Burke. 1997. Conservation and biology of sea turtles in the northeastern United States. p. 41-46. In Conservation and Biology of Northeastern Turtles, edited by T. J. Tyning. Serpent's Tale. Worcester, MA.

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