Over 1000 Sea Turtles Rescued by Volunteers in Southern Texas
March 1, 2011
by Katrina Phillips, NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellow
Freezing temperatures in early February caused approximately 1600 endangered green sea turtles to wash ashore on and around South Padre Island, Texas. The cold-blooded marine reptiles suffered from a condition called ‘cold-stunning’ which resembles a comatose state in response to the sudden drop in temperature. Cold-stunned turtles are unable to swim and are vulnerable to boat strikes, predators and stranding.
Dozens of volunteers quickly responded to the stranding event. Among them were members of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists, sponsored by NOAA’s Texas Sea Grant Program. Between February 3 and 4 the Naturalists and other groups collected 860 turtles from the shoreline and brought them to rescue facilities to recuperate.
“Rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles is tough,” admitted county extension agent Tony Reisenger, who heads the Sea Grant group. “It’s brutally cold out and these volunteers have to wait until low tide and then wade out into the cold water and mud to retrieve these animals. Some of the turtles weigh more than 100 pounds and it can prove exhausting to the volunteers to get the turtles back onto shore and into vehicles.”
Luckily their efforts paid off. Of the initial 860 rescued turtles, 750 survived and were healthy enough to release the next day. A majority of the turtles were juveniles less than twelve years of age and between 10 to 30 pounds, according to Jeff George of Sea Turtle, Inc. The largest rescued turtle weighed in at 150 pounds. Strandings continued for a few days with a final count of approximately 1600 sea turtles. Nearly 1050 of these were live strandings, and 980 rescued turtles have been released into the Gulf.
This cold-stun stranding event is the largest recorded along the Texas shoreline since record-keeping began in 1980, reports Texas Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN) coordinator Donna Shaver, and is over three times the previous Texas record set in January 2010. National STSSN coordinator Wendy Teas of NOAA Fisheries put these numbers into perspective, “There are areas that have some degree of cold-stunning pretty much every year, generally further north near Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina. Texas and Florida experience cold-stunning events less frequently, but often have more turtles affected since turtles often migrate south and may be more concentrated in these areas in the winter. ” Massive stranding events like this one – and a January 2010 event which impacted over 4,600 turtles in Florida – require quick action to minimize loss of these endangered species. Without the hard work of dedicated volunteers many of these turtles likely would not have survived.
NOAA Sea Grant is a national program with member institutions in 32 states. Each state program offers unique opportunities for volunteers to participate in efforts to protect and restore natural resources. To find out about volunteer opportunities near you, contact your local Sea Grant affiliate.