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Cold-Stunning Threatens Aquatic Wildlife – Marylanders Asked to Help

Lethargic sea turtles and marine mammals should be reported to 800-628-9944

Photo of officer on a boat returning a turtle to the wagter

A sea turtle that had been cold-stunned but was rescued and rehabilitated is returned to the water by Natural Resources Police in 2020. Maryland DNR photo.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources asks those visiting the Chesapeake Bay or Atlantic Coast to be vigilant of sea turtles who exhibit signs of cold-stunning, a condition that causes animals to become debilitated and experience hypothermia-like symptoms due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. 

Cold-stunning typically occurs in late autumn and early winter when water temperatures begin to fall or when temperatures drop rapidly in a 24-hour period. Lethargic and unresponsive animals can be a danger to themselves and potentially to boaters. Cold-stunning can ultimately be lethal to certain species, and Stranding Network members respond to thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles along the Atlantic Coast annually. 

While this condition typically affects sea turtles, West Indian manatees are also susceptible and have occasionally been reported in Maryland during winter. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Response Program responded to a deceased, cold-stunned manatee in late November 2016, which was found stranded at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Anyone who sees a lethargic, floating, debilitated, or deceased sea turtle or marine mammal in Maryland waters or stranded onshore should maintain a safe distance and call the Maryland Natural Resources Police Hotline at 800-628-9944. The hotline is maintained 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. 

Marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The harassment, feeding, or collection of these species or their parts can result in fines, imprisonment, and/or the seizure of vessels and personal property.