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Protected Species Branch

(NOAA Image)



Research conducted by the Protected Species Branch (PSB) seeks to recover protected species in cooperation with other U.S. Federal and State conservation agencies and the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente Recursos Naturales y Pesca of Mexico (SEMARNAP).

All PSB research is responsive to requirements of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (as reauthorized in 1988), the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Sea Turtle Recovery Plans, and the NOAA Strategic Plan. Research on endangered and threatened sea turtles, especially the endangered Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), focuses on increasing its population in U.S. and Mexican waters.

Tag returns from 23,102 captive-reared Kemp's ridleys of the 1978-1995 year-classes, released at 7 months or more in age into the Gulf of Mexico, were evaluated to determine geographic distribution, habitat use, survival and growth in the wild. Each year, 180 Kemp's ridleys continue to be captive-reared from hatchlings for up to 1 yr of age for research on tags and tagging methods.

Loggerheads (Caretta caretta) are reared in captivity for up to 2 years for research on submergence physiology and gear development. As 2 year olds, they are semi-wild conditioned in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department seawater ponds in Palacios, Texas or in turtle pens at the NMFS Panama City Laboratory for use in Turtle Excluder Device (TED) certification trials in Panama City, Florida.

The PSB participates in the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN) and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN) documenting strandings along the Southwestern Louisiana and upper Texas coasts (shrimp statistical subareas 17-18). Sea turtle and marine mammal strandings are documented by ground and aerial surveys, carcasses are necropsied, and tissues are sampled for transfer to other laboratories for ecotoxicological and histopathological analyses.

New methods for rehabilitating live-stranded sea turtles are developed and tested, and rehabilitated turtles are released, provided they have no chronic illnesses or handicapping injuries. Congenitally abnormal sea turtles are used in research then transferred to other researchers or euthanized. X-rays are performed on Kemp's ridleys caught incidentally by recreational fishers to determine if ingested hooks are present, and surgical removal of hooks is performed by a cooperating veterinarians when necessary.

Physiological studies of sea turtles evaluate the effects of involuntary submergence on blood respiratory and acid-base balance.The PSB coordinates with the U.S. Coast Guard to obtain counts of commercial shrimping and fishing vessels and boats before, during and after annually recurring Texas Closures. All these activities ensure that adequate information is available to NOAA, NMFS and the SEFSC for evaluation of natural and human-caused mortalities in sea turtles and marine mammals, and for assessments of their population status and potential for recovery.


Slide show of PSB Activities

A Review of Cold Stun Strandings on Cape Cod

Responses of Juvenile Loggerheads to Light Sources



PSB Projects:

PSB Staff:

PSB Accomplishments:

Since 1978, the availability of Kemp's ridleys and other sea turtle species at the Galveston Laboratory each year has offered unmatched opportunities for sea turtle research on methods of captive-rearing, tags and tagging, reproductive physiology, captive-breeding, foods and feeding, diseases, etc. Mark-recapture studies determined geographic distribution and habitat use, causes of mortality, growth and survival of head-started Kemp's ridleys in the wild. In May 1996, the first documented nestings of head-started Kemp's ridleys occurred at the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS), involving one nester from the 1983 year-class and another from the 1986 year-class. Each laid 88 eggs which were incubated at PINS by Department of Interior personnel, and the hatchlings were released at PINS in July 1996. Captive-reared Kemp's ridleys and Florida loggerheads have been provided for NMFS' testing and certification of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).

Since the mid-1980s, the PSB has participated in NMFS' Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN) by conducting ground and aerial surveys of marine turtle strandings in the index area comprised of southwestern Louisiana and Texas coasts. Such monitoring of sea turtle strandings in site specific index areas aided the National Research Council's evaluation of the causes of decline in sea turtle populations (Magnuson et al. 1990, Decline of the sea turtles: causes and prevention, National Academy Press, Wash., D.C.). It was one of the scientific bases for regulations requiring use of TEDs in commercial shrimp trawls to reduce incidental take of sea turtles. It continues to be one means of monitoring the efficacy of TEDs as well as natural and human-caused mortalities in sea turtles. In addition, the PSB participates in assessing major sea turtle stranding episodes in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Sick or injured sea turtles brought to the Galveston Laboratory are rehabilitated and released, if they do not have chronic illnesses or permanently handicapping injuries that would prevent release. They are X-rayed to detect ingested hooks, and hooks are surgically removed by a cooperating veterinarians. Sea turtle carcasses are collected and necropsied, and tissue samples are transferred to other laboratories for histopathological and ecotoxicological analyses. .

In recent years, the PSB has participated in the Southeast Fisheries Science Center's (SEFSC) Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN). The PSB Chief is the SEFSC's Area Representative at the Galveston Laboratory, who facilitates the work of Texas' MMSN Coordinator (at Texas A&M University) and serves as NOAA coordinator for major marine mammal stranding episodes. In addition, the PSB assists in ground and aerial surveys of marine mammal strandings, retrieval of code 2 dolphins for necropsy, tissue sampling and transfer of tissues to other laboratories for histopathological and ecotoxicological analyses. These activities ensure that adequate information is available to NOAA, NMFS and the SEFSC for evaluation of causes and potential effects of both normal and anomalous mortality episodes.

The National Research Council (Magnuson et al. 1990) recommended an investigation of how capture incidental to shrimptrawling might affect sea turtle physiology, as a function of species, size, season, water temperature, time of day, and history of previous submergence. Experiments were conducted in the field and laboratory to determine the effects of submergence on sea turtle blood pH, gas levels (partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide), ion concentrations (lactate, chloride, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium), and catecholamine and glucose concentrations. Brief (i.e., as little as 7.5 min) involuntary submergence induced severe blood respiratory and acid-base disturbances in sea turtles. The magnitude of these acid-base disturbances and the duration of the recovery period following submergence were correlated with the duration of the submergence episode and water temperature. New techniques for resuscitating comatose turtles collected by the STSSN were developed and tested. Techniques for surgical anesthesia were also developed and tested on sea turtles.

PSB staff have provided expert testimony in Federal trials concerning alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, and have participated in scientific and technical workshops concerning fisheries interactions with protected species (e.g., the NMFS Southwest Fisheries Center workshop on sea hooking mortality in the Pacific longline fishery, held in Honolulu, Hawaii in November 1993). The PSB Chief is a member of the Turtle Expert Working Group which developed status of stocks assessments for Kemp's ridley and loggerhead sea turtles (Byles et al., 1996).

PSB Research Partners:

Recent PSB Publications and Reports: