Between April and mid-August, 282 loggerhead sea turtles have been found stranded on the beaches — a record number, and more than twice the average over the past 10 years.
Wildlife officials don’t know why the number of stranded turtles has shot up this year and are urging people to report any turtle sightings along the beaches.
“This dramatic increase in loggerhead strandings this year is alarming,” Donna J Shaver, a sea turtle scientist at the US National Parks Service, said in a statement.
Loggerhead turtles are large sea turtles that can weigh more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms), found in oceans all over the world, including the Texas Gulf Coast. In the US, they primarily nest along the Atlantic Ocean between North Carolina and Florida.
In Texas, the turtles have been founded stranded more and more often over the past 10 years, Dr Shaver said.
Most of the turtles are showing up in the Coastal Bend, a section of the Gulf Coast near Corpus Christi. And many have been found alive, though often in need of medical care.
“In the Coastal Bend, around one third of the stranded loggerheads have been found alive and are receiving care at permitted rehabilitation facilities,” Mary Kay Skoruppa, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said in the statement.
“The affected loggerheads have been found underweight and emaciated. They are receiving diligent care in rehabilitation, and we hope that most will recover and ultimately be released back into the Gulf of Mexico.”
There are a few reasons why the turtles might end up stranded, including lower water quality or decreasing availability of food, according to Dr Shaver. Diseases and fishing are not believed to contribute to the ongoing strandings, she adds.
Officials are studying the turtles and their environment to learn about the potential causes.
Loggerhead sea turtles are listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, a global database of threatened species. Threats include pollution and human development on the coasts where they lay their eggs.
Sea turtles in various spots around the world have also faced the threat of warmer temperatures. Since the egg’s sex is determined by the temperature of the sand — with warmer temperatures creating female eggs — a hotter planet is leading to more and more female sea turtles, and fewer male ones.
But while scientists are working to understand why these strandings are occurring, they ask people to rely on trained professionals to deal with any turtles they might find.
“It takes a lot of coordination among trained, authorized individuals to successfully rescue stranded sea turtles,” Ms Skoruppa said in the statement. “It is therefore critical that citizens report their sightings immediately, so that rescue efforts can begin quickly.”
Since the sea turtles are protected under the US Endangered Species Act, the professionals that work directly with them must meet exceptional standards, USFWS notes. As a protected species, there are also heavy fines for harassing, injuring, killing or taking the turtles.