Stranded sea tur­tles in need of new sav­ior

Galve­ston lab plans to end res­cue pro­gram

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - STAFF WRITER By 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 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.”

Cour­tesy Hous­ton Zoo

Dr. Joe Flana­gan, se­nior vet­eri­nar­ian at the Hous­ton Zoo, ex­am­ines a Kemp’s ri­d­ley sea tur­tle that washed ashore on a Galve­ston beach.

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