Saving Sea Turtles
Dedicated volunteers continue to fight serious threats to Gulf populations.
By Rusty Middleton
Early February 2011 found Texas frozen with an unusually frigid blast that stretched its icy fingers down to the coast. At sea turtle restoration facilities, phones rang off the hook with reports of turtles that appeared to be paralyzed or dead. The phenomenon is known as cold-stranding, a condition caused by sudden drops in temperature.
“We prepare ahead of time for cold-stranding events, but no one was ready for the sheer size of that one. It took on epic proportions,” says Jeff George, curator of Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island.
For the next four days, George, his staff, volunteers and personnel from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and National Park Service worked around the clock frantically rescuing more than 1,000 turtles (mostly green sea turtles) from the shallow, chilly waters and shores of the Laguna Madre. The first ones found were more likely to survive; after three or four days passed, most of the ones they found were dead. In all, they rescued and released 735, after they were treated and tagged.
After a “cold-stranding” event in 2011, volunteers and wildlife workers rescued hundreds of sea turtles along the coast.
Farther north at turtle facilities at Padre Island National Seashore and at Texas A&M University–Galveston, the story was similar but on a smaller scale.
In all, more than 1,600 cold-stranded turtles were found. Of those, about a thousand survived and were released.
“It was grueling,” George says. “It took me about a month to get over it.”
It was by far the largest cold-stranding event on the Texas coast since serious turtle recovery efforts began in 1978. Ironically, it was also a sign of progress. Counting nests is the only way to assess sea turtle populations. For the most part, greens don’t yet nest in Texas, so no one really knows how many there are in state waters. Finding 1,600 stranded is an indicator that there are many turtles where there used to be virtually none.
“Greens have seen exponential growth,” says Tasha Metz, a Texas A&M–Galveston turtle research scientist who has studied greens near South Padre Island.
George agrees. “Green sea turtles are beginning to nest again on the Texas coast,” he says. “We are seeing a few every year. Twenty years ago there were 40 to 50 nests on the northern Mexico Gulf coast; now there’s around a thousand. We know they are here year-round nowadays. They are probably spreading north.”
Loggerhead turtle at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.
Historically, green turtles and other species of turtles were abundant on the Texas coast, but after the Civil War, canneries exploited them for food until they were essentially extirpated by about 1910.
“Now we are getting them back,” George says with a smile.
It is far too soon to declare victory in the restoration effort, but of the five species of sea turtles in Texas waters, two have shown significant increases in numbers in recent years.
In 2011, the more well-known Kemp’s ridley had the most nests (199) on Texas beaches ever recorded. However, 10,000 nesting females worldwide would need to be counted in a season before consideration is given to changing the turtle’s status from endangered to threatened. In fact, Kemp’s ridley is considered the most endangered sea turtle on earth. (All species in Texas waters — leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley — are listed as either threatened or endangered.)
There are reasons for cautious optimism. Not only does Texas have more Kemp’s ridley nests now, but many more nests (20,000) also exist on northern Mexico beaches, especially at the Rancho Nuevo Sanctuary in Tamaulipas. Indeed, it was Rancho Nuevo that seeded the nesting program in Texas with about 22,000 Kemp’s ridley eggs from 1978 to 1988. In addition, infrastructure, equipment, personnel, a small army of volunteers and massive public support all give hope for eventual restoration.
That said, there are still plenty of reasons to worry. The situation was worsened by 2010’s massive Gulf oil spill. Many Kemp’s ridleys were foraging in the vicinity of Deepwater Horizon when it exploded; 456 oiled turtles were collected afterward. No one knows how many were killed outright. Studies are ongoing to determine whether contamination from the spill is passing through the food chain and even from generation to generation.
Florida marine biologist and sea turtle expert Blair Witherington says the effects of the spill can be subtle and take years to manifest. Kemp’s ridleys can take 15 years to reach sexual maturity, so it could be a long time before anyone fully understands the extent of the damage.
“[The oil spill] created an awful lot of long-term uncertainty for turtle restoration,” says Donna Shaver, director of the Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Division at Padre Island National Seashore.
There are numerous human-related threats to sea turtles — changes to nesting beaches, collisions with boats, dredging, ingestions of plastics, etc. — but the most serious single threat is the shrimping industry. As far back as 1990, the National Academy of Sciences documented that “shrimp trawling kills more sea turtles than all other human activities combined, and the annual mortality estimate may be low by as much as a factor of 4.”
In spite of decades of refinements to turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which allow turtles to escape from nets and are mandated by federal law, shrimping is still killing turtles. The reasons are many.
To protect sea turtles from injury and drowning, shrimpers such as Joey Molina are required to use turtle excluder devices on their nets to let turtles escape.
“Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by environmental groups in 2011 revealed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) management was steering enforcement officers away from TED inspections,” says Carole Allen, Gulf director for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “This lack of commitment to enforcement also applies to most Gulf state fish and wildlife agencies. For example, the state of Louisiana refuses to allow its game wardens to enforce TED regulations.”
TPWD is an exception in that it includes TED regulations in the normal course of fisheries enforcement in state waters. Lt. Fred Ruiz, captain of a 65-foot TPWD fisheries boat, thinks cooperation from Texas shrimpers is pretty good.
“Only a few of them that I check are out of compliance,” he says.
But the turtles are still dying. More than 900 washed up on Gulf shores in early 2011. Scientists extrapolate that the real number of deaths could be as high as 18,000 because only a small percentage of dead turtles are actually seen. Necropsies from NMFS studies showed that most died not from ingested oil, but from drowning, meaning they were likely caught in shrimp trawls. Environmental groups promptly initiated a lawsuit against NMFS for failure to enforce the Endangered Species Act.
“One problem is that the ESA regulations have a gaping loophole when it comes to TED devices,” says Allen. “TEDs aren’t required on skimmer trawlers.”
Skimmer trawlers are smaller boats with smaller nets that operate mainly in shallow water. They are not allowed in Texas, but Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi have lots of them. Although they were once fairly rare, skimmer trawlers now make up about two-thirds of the Louisiana shrimp fleet. About the only limitation placed on these boats is that they must shorten the trawl time so that any turtles caught will theoretically not be held underwater longer than they can hold their breath.
“How is that going to be enforced?” asks Allen.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration instituted a mandatory TED program for deep-water shrimp boats in 1987 after a voluntary program elicited only about 1 percent compliance.
The TED mandate brought on decades of confusion, legal chaos, angry recriminations from shrimpers, changing and sometimes contradictory regulations and, of course, lawsuits. Today the shrimping industry’s trade association, at least, is resigned to the mandate. The Southern Shrimp Alliance exhorts shrimpers to install and use TEDs correctly.
“Compliance has decreased recently,” alliance Executive Director John Williams says. “A fishery can be closed if violations do not stop immediately.”
Many individual shrimpers remain resistant.
“We don’t like them,” shrimp boat deckhand Joey Molina says, holding a TED in his hands on the Galveston boat docks.
Ben Higgins, program manager at NOAA’s sea turtle lab in Galveston, sees some irony in the attitudes of Molina and other shrimpers.
“NOAA has been working on improving TEDs since about 1978,” he said. “They have been refined to the point where they actually benefit trawling by excluding ocean debris as well as turtles. I think there are a growing number of shrimpers who should like TEDs.”
Higgins and NOAA do not focus solely on controlling the shrimpers in their efforts to protect sea turtles. Longline fishing is also a very serious and growing threat. A first-of-its-kind study by Duke University estimated that, worldwide, 250,000 loggerhead and 60,000 leatherback turtles are inadvertently snared by longline fishing each year.
Longlining is devastating to turtles and many other nontarget species such as sea birds, sharks and even seals because it is a nonselective fishery. Up to 40 miles of line, baited with thousands of hooks, is played out behind factory trawlers and left in the water for up to 16 hours. Those hooks can catch or snare virtually any animal that investigates the bait. NMFS has recently further restricted longlining in the Gulf after studies estimated that as many as 1,000 sea turtles were caught on longlines over an 18-month period.
“We have two choices — either shut down the fishery or find a solution,” Higgins says. NOAA has found a partial solution in specially designed round hooks that can greatly reduce the incidental take of turtles. These hooks are now required in U.S. waters. Unfortunately, that amounts to only a small fraction of worldwide longlining.
All along the Texas coast, scientists and advocates have dedicated their careers to sea turtle research and protection. Dedication is the common thread running through all of their efforts.
In Galveston, Higgins and scientist Lindsay Howell donate spare time for a small turtle hospital that has no funding for staff. Metz continues to pursue turtle research even when she doesn’t have adequate grant money. Her assistant, graduate student Katie St. Clair, donates her time by managing the beach turtle patrol.
Allen with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in Houston has been a tireless advocate for decades. In Port Aransas, Tony Amos has rescued and rehabilitated sea turtles and other animals without a salary for about 30 years.
Shaver at Padre Island National Seashore sometimes spends days at her turtle hatching facility, sleeping at night on a cot in her office. During the cold-stranding of 2011, she spent thousands of dollars of her own money for urgently needed equipment that couldn’t wait. Other workers at Padre Island endured long days slogging through the mud and frigid temperatures to rescue turtles during the cold-stranding. The same can be said for George, his staff and volunteers at South Padre Island.
Though slow to recovery, sea turtle restoration efforts continue through the valiant and unsung dedication of these volunteers and so many others.