Stranded sea turtles in need of new savior
Galveston lab plans to end rescue program
The sea turtle was almost dead, stranded at the high tide line on a Galveston beach. It had a thick coating of algae on its outer shell. Its body was thin, its eyes sunken. It wasn’t moving.
A beachgoer spotted it and called a hotline for reporting stranded sea turtles. With the call, the NOAA Fisheries laboratory in Galveston sprang into action. An employee collected the 40-pound turtle from the beach and brought it 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 purplegloved fingers. The turtle got X-rays, blood work and a full physical exam.
The diagnosis: Dehydration and pneumonia.
“We got it just in time,” Higgins said. “It was very close to leaving us.”
But with some squid in its system and 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 after the winter.
The next turtles to wash ashore may not be so lucky. 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 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.
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 have been injured by boats or caught in shrimp trawling nets, which hold them under the surface and fill their air-breathing lungs with wa- ter.
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 has notified its partner organizations along the Texas Coast to talk about transferring responsibility of the sea turtle hospital and rescue system.
The idea is for one or several 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.
“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.”
Dr. Joe Flanagan, senior veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, examines a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that washed ashore on a Galveston beach.