They’re get­ting along swim­mingly

Sci­en­tists and vol­un­teers study­ing the green sea tur­tles of the murky San Gabriel River say the colony of 100 is — sur­pris­ingly — thriv­ing

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun

When sci­en­tists con­firmed their ex­is­tence in the San Gabriel River in 2008, the green sea tur­tles were thought to be odd­balls or lost wan­der­ers.

The fed­er­ally en­dan­gered species usu­ally is found in trop­i­cal haunts — amid coral reefs or on the sandy beaches where they lay eggs. But this colony was ca­vort­ing in the south­ern end of the river, where the flood con­trol chan­nel’s tainted ur­ban runoff mixes with tidal flows in the shad­ows of elec­tric power plants and the 405 Free­way.

With each mas­sive tur­tle that poked its grape­fruit-size head above the murky wa­ter for a gulp of air came ques­tions.

How many were there? What were they eat­ing? Were they adapt­ing to the chal­lenges the two-mile-long, 100-yard-wide chan­nel be­tween the cities of Long Beach and Seal Beach pre­sented: fish­ing hooks, mo­tor­boats, il­le­gal dump­ing and tons of garbage that wash in ev­ery time it rains?

Af­ter years of mon­i­tor­ing their be­hav­ior and track­ing their move­ments, fed­eral sci­en­tists — as­sisted by a small army of vol­un­teers or­ga­nized by the Aquar­ium of the Pa­cific and the Los Cer­ri­tos Wet­lands Author­ity — are com­ing up with an­swers to some of the rid­dles the tur­tles pose.

“The green sea tur­tles in the San Gabriel River are thriv­ing,” said Dan Law­son, a bi­olo-

gist with the Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­eries Ser­vice. “Over the past decade, we’ve seen about 100 of them in the river and in nearby Alami­tos Bay, Ana­heim Bay, Hunt­ing­ton Har­bor and the Naval Weapons Sta­tion.

“But they’d be a lot hap­pier if our reg­u­la­tory agen­cies did a bet­ter job of con­trol­ling trash in the river,” he said.

The colony, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, is com­posed of ju­ve­niles hatched off cen­tral Mex­ico, where the pop­u­la­tion is in­creas­ing thanks to nest­ing-beach pro­tec­tions and a re­duc­tion in poach­ing. Ex­actly when they ar­rived, or whether they trav­eled to­gether or as in­di­vid­u­als, re­mains un­known.

The tur­tles range in size from a sheet of note­book pa­per to 100-pounders, and eat al­most any­thing they can clamp their mouths on — in­clud­ing snails in the river and eel­grass in the es­tu­ar­ies of the Naval Weapons Sta­tion.

An analysis of tis­sue and shell sam­ples con­ducted by Arthur Bar­raza as part of his grad­u­ate work in ma­rine bi­ol­ogy at Cal State Long Beach showed rel­a­tively low lev­els of toxic met­als and car­cino­genic sub­stances.

“These tur­tles are fairly healthy, at least right now,” he said. “Con­tam­i­nants ac­cu­mu­late in their tis­sues over time, and their harm­ful ef­fects can ini­tially be sub­tle and hard to de­tect.”

The good news about the tur­tles’ health is off­set, how­ever, by the sight of them hav­ing to nav­i­gate through rot­ting garbage, dis­carded shop­ping carts, tires, plas­tic bot­tles and bags.

Mike Kas­par, a spokesman for the Los An­ge­les County Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works, said the agency was “in the process of clean­ing up that por­tion of the river right now.”

Stand­ing re­cently on a slant­ing con­crete wall as sea tur­tles sur­faced in the foamy cur­rent and county crews picked up trash on­shore, Cas­san­dra Davis of the aquar­ium’s San Gabriel River Sea Tur­tle Mon­i­tor­ing Project was hope­ful.

“We have the abil­ity to trans­form this un­likely habi­tat into an ur­ban oa­sis for wildlife, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les’ res­i­dent sea tur­tles,” she said.

“So we ought to do that, be­cause they de­serve bet­ter than this.”

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. COUNTY WORK­ERS col­lect trash in the San Gabriel River near Seal Beach last week. The green sea tur­tles have to nav­i­gate through garbage, dis­carded shop­ping carts, tires, plas­tic bot­tles and other de­bris.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

A TUR­TLE comes up for air. Sci­en­tists still don’t know how or when the crea­tures ar­rived in the San Gabriel River.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

A POWER PLANT along the San Gabriel River in Long Beach. “We have the abil­ity to trans­form this un­likely habi­tat into an ur­ban oa­sis for wildlife, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les’ res­i­dent sea tur­tles,” one of­fi­cial said.

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