One Gulf­port hos­pi­tal is sav­ing hun­dreds of pa­tients: They’re tur­tles

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY BY JOHN FITZHUGH jc­fitzhugh@sun­her­ald.com

GULF­PORT

Imag­ine swal­low­ing a hook with a large weight at­tached to it.

Imag­ine spend­ing months with that hook in­side you while you try to carry on with your life.

That hap­pens to sea tur­tles on a reg­u­lar ba­sis when they take a fish­er­man’s bait.

Lucky for them, there is some­one here to help.

Lo­cated on the in­dus­trial Canal in Gulf­port, the In­sti­tute For Ma­rine Mam­mal Stud­ies has been a lead­ing force in help­ing save the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Kemp’s ri­d­ley sea tur­tle.

Since the 2010 BP oil spill, they have res­cued more than 1,000 of the tur­tles, re­turn­ing 98 per­cent of them to the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Iron­i­cally, those tur­tles that have been caught by ac­ci­dent help keep lo­cal fish­ing piers open while con­tribut­ing to the study of the species.

Co-op­er­a­tion of lo­cal fish­er­men is crit­i­cal to their suc­cess.

Fed­eral law lim­its the num­ber of pro­tected sea tur­tles that can

be caught off of any given pier. When IMMS is able to re­ha­bil­i­tate and re­turn an ac­ci­den­tally caught tur­tle, it takes that catch off the pier’s list, al­low­ing it to stay open.

Signs posted on piers give in­struc­tions and a hot­line num­ber to call if you ac­ci­den­tally catch a sea tur­tle.

If a mem­ber of the IMMS staff isn’t avail­able, lo­cal fire de­part­ments are trained to col­lect the animals and keep them un­til they can be treated at the IMMS ve­teri­nary hos­pi­tal.

Get­ting animals that are fairly healthy al­lows them to learn about their bi­ol­ogy and be­hav­ior, said Mys­te­ria Sa­muel­son, be­hav­ior ecol­o­gist and strand­ing co­or­di­na­tor for IMMS.

“That helps for­mu­late a prac­ti­cal plan for the con­ser­va­tion of the species,” she said.

Debra Moore, a vet­eri­nar­ian from Mis­sis­sippi State Uni­ver­sity, has worked with IMMS for the last year in a five-year project funded by money from the BP oil spill set­tle­ment. The $6.5 mil­lion grant pays for work to help both stranded dol­phins and tur­tles. The money is awarded through a

Na­tional Fish and Wildlife Foun­da­tion grant through the Mis­sis­sippi De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity.

Moore said they have gath­ered in­for­ma­tion from 629 healthy Kemp’s ri­d­ley tur­tles that, for the first time, has given sci­en­tists a base­line of knowl­edge.

“We (now) know what nor­mal looks like,” she said.

“Every time we get an op­por­tu­nity to do all the di­ag­nos­tic work with these guys, we’re learn­ing more and more about them.”

Still their work is “in its first stages”

“Prior to the oil spill there was very lit­tle knowl­edge on what made these animals tick,” said Moby Solangi, di­rec­tor of IMMS. “Un­til we started this work, no­body thought the Mis­sis­sippi Sound was a crit­i­cal habi­tat.”

They now know that af­ter tur­tles that sur­vive af­ter be­ing born on a beach in Mex­ico spend their ju­ve­nile years in the north­ern Gulf of Mex­ico.

Knowl­edge about species like the Kemp’s ri­d­ley gives sci­en­tists an in­sight into the over­all health of the Gulf of Mex­ico. Study of the gulf has greatly in­creased since the oil spill, but much is still not known.

Re­cov­ery of the species is very in­te­gral to main­tain­ing a healthy ecosys­tem, said strand­ing tech­ni­cian Erin Matt­son.

“We’re try­ing to make sure that we give them the best chance for sur­vival.”

Typ­i­cally, when a fish­er­man calls the strand­ing hot­line, a team from

IMMS will come col­lect the an­i­mal. They will ex­am­ine it, in­clud­ing blood sam­ples and x-rays. They will re­move any hooks or other for­eign ob­jects and de­vise a rehabilitation plan.

Tur­tles may stay be­tween a month and a year be­fore they are healthy enough to re­turn to the Gulf.

Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is a big part of their pro­gram, so they like to in­vite the pub­lic when­ever they re­lease tur­tles.

On Satur­day, about 300 peo­ple watched as eight of the tur­tles were re­leased in Pass Chris­tian.

Chil­dren, adults and the IMMS staff rev­eled in the event.

“Ever since I was a lit­tle kid I’ve al­ways wanted to work with sea tur­tles,” said Erin Fitz­patrick-Wacker, a ve­teri­nary tech­ni­cian for IMMS. It is “ex­tremely re­ward­ing” to take care of a sick Kemp’s ri­d­ley and then re­lease them.

“Just see­ing that tur­tle get re­ally ex­cited when you put them back in the ocean is su­per re­ward­ing,” she said. “I love be­ing a part of that.”

JOHN FITZHUGH jc­fitzhugh@sun­her­ald.com

A ju­ve­nile Kemp’s ri­d­ley tur­tle swims Fri­day in a hold­ing tank at the In­sti­tute for Ma­rine Mam­mal Stud­ies be­fore its re­lease Satur­day.

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