Despite best efforts of GSP staff, loggerhead turtle perishes at Mississippi Aquarium

Despite best efforts of GSP staff, loggerhead turtle perishes at Mississippi Aquarium
Local naturalists & volunteers are dedicated to protecting these magnificent creatures
By Fran Thompson
Despite the best efforts of staff at Gulf State Park, the Mississippi Aquarium and the Orange Beach Nature Center, an already injured male loggerhead sea turtle that was twice accidently hooked at the Gulf State Park Fishing Pier died four days after being rescued and transferred to Mississippi Aquarium for further care.
In addition to hooks on the side of its head and two hooks embedded in its fins, veterinarians at the Mississippi Aquarium found three hooks in the turtle’s stomach and small intestines after it died. The turtle’s shell (carapace) was also severely damaged, probably from a boat propeller, and the loggerhead had barnacles covering its head and body. The 97-pound turtle was anemic and was swollen from protein deficiency when rescued.
“Everybody worked really well together and we did all the right things,’’ said Gulf State Park Pier Manager Aubrey Bianco. “Unfortunately, we did not get the results that we wanted. But overall it was a great effort and hopefully this experience allows people to gain a little more knowledge when they are in areas where turtles have interactions with humans. And we will be prepared for the next time it happens.’’
The loggerhead was first accidentally hooked at the GSP Pier on Oct. 4, but it broke off the hook before, Bianco, who worked at GSP as a naturalist for three years prior to taking over administration of the pier, and her staff were able to maneuver it to shore.
Bianco said an attempt is made to get a turtle to shore for treatment every time one becomes entangled with a hook or fishing line at the pier. She said turtles get in trouble mostly from swimming into fishing lines rather than feeding on baited hooks.
“We were trying to get it into a net when it broke off,’’ Bianco said. “We could see how badly damaged the carapace was. We knew it needed rehab. We did not want to see it back out in the wild with who knows what predators after it.’’
On Oct. 7, the turtle was again accidentally hooked at the GSP Pier, and Craig Gaston from the pier staff and GSP security guard Jacob Mitchum were able to cajole the turtle to shore.
Bianco was not at the pier at the time, but she and GSP naturalists Cory Powell and Farren Dell responded within minutes and attended to the severely injured loggerhead before it was transferred to the Mississippi Aquarium in a tank provided by the Orange Beach Nature Center.
The young adult turtle weighed only 97 pounds, according to aquarium veterinarians. Adult loggerheads typically weigh 200 to 350 pounds.
With help from onlookers who provided an umbrella for shade, a water soaked blanket and a water bucket, the naturalists attempted to provide a stress free environment for the turtle while preparing for its transfer to the Mississippi Aquarium.
The women met staff from the Mississippi Aquarium in Grand Bay to save time, with the entire process of getting the turtle from the Gulf to the Mississippi Aquarium taking around six hours.
“Probably what happened is she got injured by a boat, got an infection and became weak and was seeking out food at the fishing pier, because she wasn’t able to hunt like she normally would,” said Alexa Delaune, the Mississippi Aquarium’s vice president of veterinary services. “She was very debilitated, her bloodwork was showing us that.”
Bianco said GSP naturalists have received training from the NOAA Fisheries’ Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, and the training worked despite the sad outcome.
“Again, this past rescue was great effort on all levels with everyone working in synchronicity,’’ she said.
The turtle nesting season on area beaches ends this month. Turtles start nesting as early as May 1.
Nearly 60 percent of hatchlings will be disorientated by lights on land that can cause them to wander away from the Gulf of Mexico. Hatchlings that don’t reach the water quickly are at risk of dehydration, starvation and predation. Disoriented hatchlings also can wander into busy roads, garages and swimming pools.
Besides loggerheads, which can live up to 50 years and reach a weight of 500 pounds, kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles also nest on Alabama Gulf Coast beaches. Some of the nests can include more than 100 eggs.
An estimated 70,786 hatchlings made it to the Gulf from Alabama’s beaches over a 10 year period, according to the Alabama Coastal Foundation, which administers the Share The Beach program that enlists volunteers to monitor each of the nests. The 2016 nesting / hatching season was a record breaker for Share The Beach, with a total of 237 nests documented.
Share The Beach Coordinator Sara Johnson oversees as many as 450 volunteers who are eager to help patrol Alabama’s 47 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Mexico. Those volunteers search for new nests and protect existing nests and hatchlings from natural and human-related dangers.
Share The Beach works in coordination with Orange Beach-Gulf Shores Tourism and Gulf State Park staff to distribute informational brochures and educate tourists and locals about the sensitivity of the turtles and their nesting habits.
“We absolutely work with both Gulf State Park and the Tourism Bureau to get the word out about nesting season and best practices for being sea turtle friendly on our beaches. They have both been wonderful resources over the years and both are groups we plan to continue working closely with,’’ Johnson said.
“If you are in the general (vicinity of a turtle nest or a turtle, keep your distance, no matter what species you are looking at,” Johnson added.
Share the Beach and Gulf State Park are natural partners in their shared quest to protect the state’s turtle population.
“Annual events, like our Turtle Fest, involve coordination with Share the Beach,’’ Bianco said. “Since Share the Beach monitors all of Alabama’s coastline during sea turtle season, and Gulf State Park has about two miles of beach, there is also coordination on that end.’’
Bianco also works as a contracted public engagement coordinator through the Alabama Coastal Foundation.
“Sara and I have a good working relationship on multiple ends,’’ Bianco said. “When a turtle is called through the sea turtle hotline, Sara will reach out to us if it was reported at the State Park.’’
Johnson said although Share the Beach was not directly involved in the loggerhead turtle rescue at Gulf State Park Pier, as manager of the sea turtle hotline, she does help coordinate rescues with NOAA Stranding Coordinator, Lyndsey Howell.
There were 66 total nests on Alabama beaches this year.
“It was definitely a low year, though we don’t have an indication for why that is,’’ Johnson said.
Share the Beach was formed in 2005 by Mike Reynolds and the Friends of the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge in Gulf Shores.
In 2018, with the blessing of Reynolds (affectionately known as the turtle czar), ACF took over administration of the program, which follows protocols set forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help protect the nesting sea turtles and their habitat using specific guidelines.
Marine turtles are one of the earth’s most ancient creatures, with a fossil record going back 150 million years. Some estimates suggest they first appeared on earth as much as 230 million years ago, making them 224 million years older than humans. Alabama’s sea tea turtles are generally found in the waters over continental shelves.
For more info about Alabama’s sea turtle population, visit joinacf.org or fisheries.noaa.gov. To report a stranded or injured sea turtle, call (866) SEA-TURTLE (866-732-8878).
Cover Photo: Cory Powell (blue polo) and Gulf State Park Pier Manager Aubrey Bianco with a severely injured loggerhead turtle after an Oct. 7 incidental capture at Gulf State Park Pier. (Photo by Farren Dell). Below: Hatchlings beginning a journey that will hopefully result in a return to the exact same beach to lay eggs of their own.

 

 

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