Environment

Coast Guard frees 900-pound sea turtle in Nantucket Harbor

The female leatherback was found entangled in lines and buoys by three boaters Saturday.

Leatherback turtles gather every summer in near Nantucket and are sighted by local fishermen. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The waters off Massachusetts may be known mostly for seals and sharks, but a few boaters and Coast Guard members on Nantucket got an up close look at another nautical visitor over the weekend. A 900-pound female leatherback sea turtle was found entangled among cinder blocks, buoys, and lines in Nantucket Harbor. 

The turtle was safely freed by Coast Guard members, Nantucket Current reported

Coast Guard Petty Officer Chad Austin told the Current that Station Brant Point received a call about the turtle Saturday afternoon. It was discovered by three friends out on a boat in the harbor. The massive turtle was seen struggling among orange buoys and lines attached to cinder blocks in the waters near Wyers Point. 

Coast Guard members then consulted with the Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket, and were briefed on the best way to disentangle a turtle this size. 

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They set off in a small rescue boat, and found the turtle. 

“The line was wrapped around her neck and one of her fins, so we did our best to try to relieve the pressure with our boat hook,” Austin told the Current. 

Three Coast Guard members got the lines off the turtle’s neck, before cutting the rest free from her body. They then dragged the lines, cinder blocks, and buoys onto the boat. 

The lines were scallop spat bags owned by the town of Nantucket’s Natural Resources Department, the Nantucket Current reported. These mesh bags are commonly used to collect scallop larvae.

This is the first known instance of these bags and lines causing an entanglement like this, the department’s director, Jeff Carlson, told the Current. He called it a “freak” incident. 

Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle, and the only ones without a hard, bony shell. They are also the most wide-ranging sea turtle, found in waters all over the world. The leatherbacks found off the coast of Massachusetts breed on beaches farther south, on Caribbean islands, the coast of South America, Florida, and even the Outer Banks of North Carolina, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

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Leatherbacks normally prefer open waters, but scientists have regularly observed them coming into the shallow coastal waters of Massachusetts to feed on concentrations of jellyfish. Each year, twenty or more are reported along the Massachusetts coast, according to MassWildlife. 

Last year, volunteers worked to return a large leatherback to the ocean after it became stranded along the Herring River in Wellfleet. 

Climate change could also be affecting these animals. In fall 2019, six leatherbacks were found dead off the Massachusetts coast. They would have normally returned south once August ended, but warming waters have pushed back the jellyfish blooms that draw the turtles to New England, The Boston Globe reported. Some of the dead turtles appeared to have been caught in fishing lines and other manmade materials.

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