EVERY YEAR, as countless endangered sea turtles migrate south along the Massachusetts shore to escape the cold, they become trapped in Cape Cod Bay’s freezing waters. Dedicated staff and volunteers with Mass Audubon carefully walk along the Cape’s beaches to rescue the stranded turtles and deliver them to the New England Aquarium to receive treatment, where they join the more than 5,000 sea turtles that have been rehabilitated and released since 1997.

These conservation heroes are on the frontlines of the effort to save our turtles, a challenge that has deepened in recent years as ocean temperatures rise and alter the historical migration patterns of sea turtles. When turtles chart a new migratory path through colder waters, it throws off their internal body temperatures, causing more turtles – most often the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle – to wash ashore in fragile states of health. In 2000, 49 trapped sea turtles were rescued on the Cape. In 2022, that number ballooned to 866. This more than 10-fold increase is a warning sign: we have to throw a lifeline to sea turtles before it’s too late.

More than $67 million in federal funds and grants have been directed toward the marine mammal stranding network for whales and dolphins over the last 20 years, but sea turtle rescue teams have been left out in the cold. The New England Aquarium and others like National Aquarium in Baltimore and South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston are among eight sea turtle stranding and response institutions nationwide that voluntarily and collectively spend $5 million each year to save our turtles.

This mission is as costly as it is critical. When turtles are rescued and transported to the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy for treatment, they often receive fluids, antibiotics, X-rays, and monitoring as they are slowly warmed 10 degrees every 24 hours in the hospital’s tanks for days or weeks. Some turtles require months of rehabilitation. Right now, the federal government does not have a dedicated grant program to support this effort, but the problem is only getting worse.

A rehabbed sea turtle being released on Cape Cod. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium

That is why Congress must pass the Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance Act. This legislation would provide $30 million to support institutions in Massachusetts and across the country working to save endangered sea turtles. From coast to coast, these federal dollars would be a boon to recovery, rescue, and rehabilitation efforts for years to come.

The Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance Act will ensure that sea turtle champions like those at the New England Aquarium aren’t merely treading water. It’s time for lawmakers to come together and pass this critical legislation.

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the New England Aquarium and Edward J. Markey is a senator and Bill Keating is a US representative from Massachusetts.