Monday, July 19, 2010

Three Months (and 674 Sea Turtles) Later

This week, we will pass the 3-month mark since the oil from the Deepwater Horizon well began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. And while this blog was created to share the work and research being done to learn about San Diego, CA's own local sea turtles, we cannot help but keep in mind our own sea turtle's counterparts who are continuously being affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The reason I, personally, love to study sea turtles is because they rely on the same functioning and health ecosystem that people do. So we know that if our sea turtles are healthy and doing well, then so are we - the people who love to eat sea food and who appreciate that our beaches protect us from large waves and storm surges. (There are MANY more reasons why we, two-footed-land-dwellers, need and rely upon our oceans - but we'll save that for another day!)

Sea turtles, in fact, have been called sentinels of the sea - and can help us better understand the state of the ocean's health.And so, my interest in the sea turtles here in San Diego is directly connected with my interest in the welfare of the regional (San Diego, Southern California, and Baja, Mexico) ecosystem, community and economy. Likewise, the concern of the sea turtles of the Gulf of Mexico is directly linked to the concern for the welfare of the Gulf's ecosystem, community, and economy.

For three months now we've been hearing about the impacts of the oil spilling into the gulf. Like many sadly-common news stories, it is all too easy to just stop listening, put it out of your mind, and move on. Unfortunately, the problems and challenges we just don't want to think about anymore don't go away just because we change the channel on the tv. And so I'll continue to help with these brief updates mixed in with continuing information about San Diego's sea turtles.

Green sea turtle surfacing in the Caribbean (photo by author)

As of Saturday, July 17th, here are the numbers concerning turtles affected by the oil spill. Visit NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration for full details.
  • 674
  • total number of sea turtles verified from April 30 - July 17 within the designated spill area
  • 144 or 21%
  • of the 674, the number of live turtles actively rescued on-water
  • 464 or 69%
  • of the 674; the number of turtles stranded dead
  • 58 or 9%
  • of the 674; the number of turtles stranded alive
  • 4
  • of those 58, the number that subsequently died
  • 187
  • turtles currently in rehabilitation
  • 162
  • total number of turtles stranded or captured that were found with visible external oil
  • 146 or 91%
  • of the oiled turtles, those which are currently alive
And just as mentioned in the other updates, oil is just one factor contributing to the mortality of these turtles. Other threats such as fishing practices contribute to the strandings and deaths reported here; however, the impacts from the oil spill inevitably result in reduced fitness of marinelife, including turtles, such that the animals have a harder time surviving other non-oil-related threats and challenges to survival.

Green sea turtle resting near old fishing gear (photo by author).

And of other news since the last post, 70,000 sea turtle eggs were relocated to the Atlantic coast of Florida, so that the hatchlings - who already have difficult odds (1 in 1,000) of surviving to adulthood - would not become immediately immersed into the oily waters of the Gulf. This plan has been initiated by many local and regional agencies, as well as the federal US Fish & Wildlife and NOAA's Fisheries Services. The relocated nests will be allowed to stay at their original Gulf beaches for as long as possible, so that there is a better chance for the hatchlings to become "imprinted" with their natal beach - that is - they will know what beach to come back to when it is their turn to mate and lay eggs.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center is hosting the transplanted nests, and the entire process is quite unprecedented. Nest-relocation is a common sea turtle conservation practice - but it usually involves moving the nest to another location at the same beach - really never are nests moved to an entirely different beach on a totally different coast.

Time will tell if this was a good choice - but the experts at USFWS and NOAA know that the hatchlings chance of survival if the nests are not moved are incredibly slim, making this action worth the risks in this instance.

To read more on the nest relocation, here is a general information article, the USFWS announcement and FAQs on the rescue mission, and the New England Aquarium rescue staff continues to update their blog on the rescue efforts.

Finally, I recommend viewing the recent "Turtle Talk" hosted by the Audubon Nature Institute to hear more directly from the experts involved in the turtle rescue, rehabilitation, and overall response efforts to the oil spill.

Friday, July 2, 2010

San Diego Hatchlings (from SeaWorld) Moved to Monterey Bay Aquarium

Last October, SeaWorld San Diego discovered that one of their adult female turtles had built a nest and laid eggs when 82 hatchlings emerged one day! Now, nine months later, ten of those hatchlings, now young juveniles, have been moved to the Monterey Bay Aquarium!

Basking sea turtles at SeaWorld San Diego (2009, photo by author)

The turtles on display at SeaWorld, where they have multiple species, is
one of two places for anyone to see sea turtles up close in San Diego, the other being at the Chula Vista Nature Center
- a wonderful place if you've never been!

Green turtle at Chula Vista Nature Center (2008, photo by author)

In the future, I would love to collaborate with SeaWorld to help enhance the entire sea turtle experience (the exhibit and display) - as it currently is a bit small, too close to a ride, and generally under utilized given the overall popularity of sea turtles. The turtle exhibit cannot be found on SeaWorld San Diego's online map, and I was unable to find the turtles on SeaWorld's Exhibit also, which is unfortunate as well - but to find it at the Park, head to the Shipwreck Rapids ride; and they do provide information about sea turtles, however, at their online Animal Infobooks.

Regardless of these facts, this recent move of some SD sea turtles to Monterey Bay is a neat opportunity for sea turtle lovers to now be able to see young turtles at the MB Aq. The small turtles have been placed in the Aquarium's relatively new "Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea" exhibit, which I was lucky enough to visit in May.

Green turtles at Monterey Bay Aquarium (2010, photo by author)

In May, the MB Aq. had two other larger green sea turtles for this Hot Pink Flamingos exhibit (see photos above), but these two are now in a behind the scenes area and are planned to be moved to the large Outer Bay exhibit after renovations this fall, according to an article in the Monterey Herald. That will be a nice change for those two animals, who will also be joined by two more turtles, as they were rapidly outgrowing that particular home.

A final thought on animals in captivity

Having worked at an aquarium for three years, I was often asked the question, "isn't it mean to keep these animals in captivity?" My answer then, just as it would be now is this: if the animals are well cared for by responsible and knowledgeable people, who put the animal's welfare above other matters (i.e. tourist season, class schedules, money...), then no, it is not mean at all. And in fact, when animals in captivity are taken care of, they are most importantly helping protect and conserve their counterparts still in the wild.

Author feeding leopard sharks at the Roundhouse Aquarium, Manhattan Beach, CA
(2003 photo by E. Martin).

By having a few animals in captivity - where the general public can see them, learn about them, and ultimately begin to understand and love them - then people are much more likely to make changes that will help to protect the rest of the animals in the wild. I also believe that the people who are responsible for caring for animals in captivity should be humble enough to know when certain animals should never, or no longer, be in captivity. Pride and arrogance of human-capabilities, or the urge to make a profit can be dangerous. Some animals just need large spaces and resources that no aquarium can provide. Some animals rely heavily on social interactions that cannot be provided for whilst in captivity.

Furthermore, successful reproductive programs in zoos and aquariums have pretty much eliminated the need to collect most animals from the wild. And finally, some animals who have been pushed to the brink of extinction - largely due to human behavior such as hunting or habitat loss - can continue to survive in captivity, with the hope of rebuilding wild populations. So, as long as responsible scientists, veterinarians and aquarists are remembering to put the animal first, then the creatures in captivity can be essential to the survival of the species.