Agencies work to protect endangered sea turtles
People likely don’t think of Texas when they think of sea turtles. But different species — Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, hawksbill, green and leatherback — can be found along the state’s coast.
The turtles were nearly wiped out by the 1970s and most types of sea turtles remain endangered or threatened today after suffering from decades of poaching, over-exploitation, habitat destruction and accidental capture in fishing equipment.
But there are signs of progress and different groups and agencies along the coast are working to help sea turtles make a comeback.
“In the U.S., nesting numbers for every kind of sea turtle are on an exponential increase,” said Ben Higgins, a marine biologist and sea turtle program manager for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
In 1978, the National Marine Fisheries Service opened a sea turtle facility in Galveston to focus on recovery efforts for the turtles, Higgins said. For 40 years, the facility has continuously raised sea turtles to be used as “guinea pigs” for designing turtle-friendly fishing gear, Higgins said.
Increased awareness and political pressure to address endangered species produced new requirements for the commercial fishing industry in the 1980s. The Galveston lab has played a critical role in advancing the science and practices for that industry, he said.
Since 1989, commercial shrimpers and anglers working in the United States have been required to use turtle excluder devices, Higgins said.
“Anytime there’s an interaction between a commercial fishery and an endangered species, you can either shut it down or come up with a method,” Higgins said.
The Galveston facility’s research arm typically has anywhere from 50 to 500 sea turtles it’s raising, he said. The turtles are used for research in designing more effective devices to prevent turtles getting caught up in commercial fishing bycatch and drowning or getting injured, he said. The turtles are eventually released, he said.
The facility has helped make huge strides toward bettering the equipment, he said. Twenty years ago, it would take about two to three minutes for a turtle caught up in fishing catch to escape with the device, Higgins said. Through advances in the technology, the time is now down to about 14 seconds, he said.
“As a fellow air breather, would you rather be held underwater for minutes or seconds?” Higgins said. “The less stress we put on that endangered species, the better chance it has.”
The devices have been exported to other parts of the world, he said. To sell catch in the United States, an exporter must use the turtle excluder devices, Higgins said. Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working with the state department, monitor and enforce at foreign docks, he said.
The facility also has a “turtle hospital” that serves any injured or stranded sea turtle found along the coast between East Matagorda Bay and the Texas-Louisiana border, he said. Typically, the facility sees about 200 turtles a year of different species through its hospital, he said. But this year, a January cold front stunned about 350 turtles, which were taken to the facility for treatment, Higgins said.
All but about two dozen have been released as of this month, he said.
For the past decade, there have been signs up along the beach with a 24-hour hotline (866-TURTLE-5) for stranded or injured sea turtles, Higgins said.
The rescue efforts are conducted by a network of nonprofit and agency organizations and their staff and volunteers, including the Turtle Island Restoration Network. When a call comes in, the different agencies work to get the injured turtle transported to either the Galveston turtle facility or the Houston zoo, which, along with the Galveston lab, provides veterinary services, Higgins said.
Joanie Steinhaus, Gulf program director for the network, opened the Galveston chapter of the Turtle Island Restoration Network about five years ago and runs education and training programs about sea turtles. Steinhaus and her team work with classrooms and different groups to educate people about sea turtles and how to protect them.
Working with Texas A&M University at Galveston, the group runs nest patrols between Freeport and Rollover Pass from April 1 to mid-July, she said. The group also advocates for clean beaches and lessening the use of plastic straws and bags, which are common causes for sea turtle injuries, Steinhaus said.
“There are easy choices individuals can make not just to protect turtles, but protect the ocean,” Steinhaus said.