Researchers Looking Into Leatherback Turtle Deaths

BREWSTER – Three leatherback turtles were found dead and washed up along the Cape Cod Bay shoreline recently, each showing possible signs of entanglement in fishing or boating gear.

“It is sad, especially since these are endangered species,” said Karen Dourdeville, sea turtle stranding coordinator for the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

A leatherback found dead late last month on Breakwater Beach in Brewster was entangled in chains, something Dourdeville said is uncommon.

According to Dourdeville, the leatherbacks most commonly get tangled in fixed vertical line fishing gear, like those used to catch lobsters.     

While the turtles washing up on shore is not unique to Cape Cod, more leatherback sightings in the Bay were reported by boaters this year than in prior years.

Previously, leatherbacks were most frequently spotted in Nantucket or Vineyard Sound, according to the Sanctuary.

Six leatherbacks have washed up on shore in Massachusetts since the beginning of fall, which is typical for the season.

The death toll may have been higher but organizations like the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown have stepped up to help the turtles.

“We would have a lot more deaths from entanglement if it weren’t for the work the Center for Coastal Studies does, they disentangle a lot of live leatherbacks,” Dourdeville said.

Vessel strikes are also an issue.

“We also had a turtle recently killed by a vessel strike, and that happens all too frequently in our waters,” Dourdevill said.

“We just hope that people who are out on the water are paying attention and watching the head of their boats and are avoiding hitting life in the ocean.”   

Mortality from vessel strikes is under-reported in the area, something Dourdeville hopes will change in the future as Mass Audubon and the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary continue to educate mariners about aquatic life.

Loggerhead turtles, which are smaller than leatherbacks, also suffer greatly from vessel strikes.

To report a live sighting of a leatherback turtle, visit

About Luke Leitner

Luke Leitner grew up in Watertown Massachusetts and now lives in West Yarmouth on the Cape. He has been a part of the news team in the News Center since the spring of 2019. He studied business communications at Western New England University.
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