October 20, 2018
After decades of rescuing stranded sea turtles, NOAA’s Galveston lab plans to scale back
News Source: Houston Chronicle
Author(s): Alyson Ward
The sea turtle was almost dead, stranded at the high tide line on a Galveston beach.
It had a thick coating of algae growing on its outer shell. Its body was thin, its eyes sunken. It wasn’t moving.
A beachgoer spotted the creature earlier this month and called a hotline for reporting stranded sea turtles. As soon as the phone rang, the NOAA Fisheries laboratory in Galveston sprang into action.
An employee collected the 40-pound turtle from the beach and brought it back to the lab. It was a Kemp’s ridley turtle — a critically endangered species — and it didn’t look good.
“It was basically one step away from being comatose,” said Ben Higgins, who manages the sea turtle program at the Galveston lab. “At one point, the staff came and got me and said, ‘We think it might be dead.’”
But it wasn’t dead. The NOAA staff put the turtle in a van and drove it to Houston. By the next morning, the turtle was sprawled out on an exam table at the Houston Zoo, letting senior veterinarian Dr. Joe Flanagan prod at it with purple-gloved fingers. The turtle got X-rays, blood work and a full physical exam.
The diagnosis: Dehydration and a touch of pneumonia.
“We got it just in time,” Higgins said. “It was very close to leaving us.”
But with some squid in its system and a prescription for antibiotics, the turtle was taken back to Galveston to recover in NOAA’s lab.
It’ll spend the winter in the lab, getting food and medicine and a heated tank. And if all goes well, it will be released back into the Gulf of Mexico sometime after the winter, when it can survive in the wild again.
The next turtles to wash ashore may not be so lucky, however. NOAA has announced plans to end its sea turtle rescue efforts on the Texas coast. That includes closing the facility’s turtle hospital, its turtle-rearing barn and its round-the-clock stranding response system.
The phasing out could happen within a few months, or it could take up to two years, conservation workers say. But when NOAA gets out of the sea turtle rescue business, a turtle with pneumonia on a Galveston beach won’t be a problem the agency can handle.
Changes on the way
The Texas coast sees five of the world’s seven types of sea turtles. And about a hundred times a year, sea turtles like this one get rescued by NOAA and cared for at the Houston Zoo.
They wash up on the upper Texas coast and get stranded, often with fishing hooks in their flesh or plastic bags in their digestive systems. Sometimes they’ve been injured by boats or caught in shrimp trawling nets, which hold them under the surface and fill their air-breathing lungs with water.
The NOAA lab collects them, one by one. One of four employees is on call at any hour of the day, standing by to answer the phone and pick up stranded turtles.
NOAA announced its intentions to Congress in July to end the rescues in an email to members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, calling the change a matter of “recent budget constraints.” The agency said it also has notified its partner organizations along the Texas coast — including Moody Gardens, Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — to talk about “transferring responsibility” of the sea turtle hospital and rescue system.
The idea is for one or several of those organizations to take over responsibilities for the region’s sea turtle rescue and hospitalization, said Dr. Christopher Marshall, a professor of marine biology at Texas A&M at Galveston.
“I think we’re all concerned about it,” Marshall said. “NOAA does have an obligation to stranded sea turtles, so we’re quite surprised that they’re doing this.”
Marshall has been part of discussions about how to fill the void when NOAA gets out of the sea turtle rescue business. He said that for now, there are more questions than answers.
“As they wind these things down, can the local community really help out with stranding, help out with rehab? Where is the sea turtle hospital going to be?” Marshall said. “And also, is NOAA going to help fund some of this, or not? These things do take funds, and nobody can really do it for free.”
As for the turtle rescues, Marshall said, “I think we’ll find a way, but it’s not a trivial task.”
Turtle populations endangered
Sea turtle rescue is considered crucial work because nearly all types of sea turtles are endangered. Some of them, like the Kemp’s ridley, are critically endangered.
On Texas beaches, signs and stickers urge people to call a hotline, 866-TURTLE5, if they see a stranded sea turtle. Right now, if the caller is on the upper Texas coast — between the Sabine and Brazos rivers — that call gets routed to the NOAA employee on call in Galveston.
That phone rings a couple of times every day, Higgins said — many more if there’s a mass stranding caused by cold stunning. That’s what happened last winter, when the Galveston lab took in hundreds of turtles after cold fronts blew through and made the bay’s shallow water suddenly colder.
“Once the temperature drops below 52 degrees, their bodies start to shut down,” Higgins said.
The turtles then land on the beach and the tide ebbs, stranding them — and they can freeze to death as temperatures drop.
Most of the serious threats to sea turtles are caused by human activity, Higgins said. Plastic bags and other trash are a constant problem because a balloon or a plastic bag floating underwater looks like food to a sea turtle. A 2015 University of Queensland study estimated that more than half of all sea turtles have ingested some form of plastic — and that plastic can block or injure the digestive system or create a buildup of gas that makes a turtle float, leaving it vulnerable to predators.
But the biggest threat to sea turtles, Higgins said, is commercial fishing — including the shrimping trawls that comb the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of sea turtles are injured or killed by shrimp trawlers every year, according to the ocean conservation group Oceana. When air-breathing turtles get caught in the trawls’ underwater nets, it’s usually deadly.
Government restrictions require many shrimp trawlers to use a “turtle excluder device,” a grid of metal bars that fits into the trawl net. While small creatures such as shrimp can pass through the grid, larger animals are blocked from getting caught in the net.
But turtles still get caught, Flanagan said. When he diagnosed the Kemp’s ridley turtle with pneumonia earlier this month, he said it’s possible the illness came from getting stuck in a net underwater.
‘Shifting their focus’
As NOAA phases out its sea turtle work in Galveston, it will also reduce its testing of turtle excluder devices.
Every year, the lab brings 200 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings from Florida to Galveston and rears them in captivity. When they are grown, the turtles help researchers test turtle excluder devices, developing more turtle-friendly nets for commercial fishing vessels.
That work has made an impact, said Dr. Pamela Plotkin, who teaches oceanography at Texas A&M University in College Station and directs the Texas Sea Grant program. But Plotkin said NOAA’s plan to scale it back now makes sense to her.
“Some people will read this and react, and they will only interpret this as ‘the federal government is reducing their commitment to sea turtles,’” Plotkin said. “I don’t see it that way at all. They are just shifting their focus to research.”
Sea turtles are still endangered, she said, but the work of conservationists —including the NOAA lab — has created a new situation on the coast.
“We’ve got more sea turtles in the Gulf and in Texas water than we’ve had in the past 70 years, and that’s a good thing,” Plotkin said. “The sea turtles are increasing, and we have different needs now.”
The rescues are important work, Plotkin said, but she hopes — and expects — that other sea turtle conservation groups will step in and pick up the slack. “There are people up there, I think, that will fill the void that NOAA is going to leave.”
Turtle population rebounds
Flanagan, who came to the Houston Zoo in 1982, says he is treating more stranded turtles every year — but that’s good news, because it means there are more turtles in the water.
“When I started here, the expectation was the Kemp’s ridley would be extinct by the turn of the millennium,” he said. But today, “We’re seeing turtles in numbers that could not have been imagined 15 years ago.”
Even so, they remain critically endangered, said Emma Gilbert, curator of marine mammals at the Texas State Aquarium. The aquarium, farther down the coast in Corpus Christi, operates its own sea turtle rescue program.
“The population is so low that every single individual turtle matters,” Gilbert said. “Losing a facility that helps with rescue and conservation efforts means losing the capacity to care for an endangered species.”
Rescue programs like the NOAA operation, she said, are “critical” to keeping the sea turtle population on the rise. It’s uncertain whether NOAA’s partner organizations can seamlessly fill the holes after the agency scales back its turtle rescue efforts.
“It is difficult to tell what the future holds,” said Dr. Donna Shaver, state coordinator for the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. “Hopefully we can find others that will be able to bridge this gap. But NOAA has been a valued partner for four decades, and their departure will have some impact, regardless.”