First Oiled Sea Turtles Released from Rehab into the Gulf

CEDAR KEY, Florida, August 19, 2010 (ENS) – The first sea turtles rehabilitated after being caught in BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill were set free Wednesday near Cedar Key.

NOAA administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco and National Incident Commander retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen joined state, federal, and partner biologists today as they released 23 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

“I’m pleased that Admiral Allen and I were able to assist with the release of these turtles. And we thank all of our partners in this rescue and rehabilitation effort,” said Dr. Lubchenco. “This is a wonderful day for all involved, but especially for the turtles.”

Kemp’s ridleys are one of five sea turtle species found in the Gulf of Mexico, and this species has been listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1973.

Twenty-two of the oiled turtles were rescued from offshore waters. Eleven were found between 40 and 60 nautical miles offshore of Destin, Florida and another 11 were found offshore of Venice, Louisiana. The other turtle was found stranded onshore on the Florida panhandle.

Biologists release Kemp’s ridley sea turtles into the Gulf of Mexico near Cedar Key, Florida. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

Scientists selected the Cedar Key area on Florida’s Gulf coast for the release because it is an important foraging area for the species, the water was never oiled, and the habitat provides everything these turtles need for survival.

“This area near Cedar Key provides excellent habitat for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and has long been known as an important habitat area for this species,” said Barbara Schroeder, NOAA’s national sea turtle coordinator.

Biologists say these turtles are at the size at which they transition from an oceanic to a nearshore life stage, and the Cedar Key area is inhabited by others of this size and age.

“Thanks to the efforts of our rescue teams and rehabilitation facility partners all of the turtles we released today have an excellent chance of surviving in the wild and contributing to the recovery of this species,” she said.

All of the turtles had internal tags placed in a flipper. These Passive Integrated Transponders, or PIT tags, are the same kind veterinarians place in dogs and cats.

All turtles found stranded or captured during directed sea turtle research programs are scanned for PIT tags, providing a way to identify turtles throughout their life.

The turtles released today were rescued by teams from NOAA and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission working with partners from the Riverhead Foundation and the In-Water Research Group.

“This is a great day for our biologists since many of these turtles were originally rescued by our staff,” said Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “Everyone involved has worked hard to ensure that these endangered turtles are returned to the wild so they can contribute to the overall population.”

The turtles were cleaned and de-oiled at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, and at Gulf World in Panama City, Florida.

The turtles were then cared for by SeaWorld Orlando, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the Florida Aquarium.

To date, approximately 500 live turtles have been rescued during the Gulf oil spill, and more than 450 stranded or captured turtles have had visible evidence of external oil.

Young turtles use areas where the marine algae Sargassum grows and thrives at the surface for feeding and sheltering habitat. But oil spilled since the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded and sank in April has collected in these zones, leading many of these small, young turtles to come into direct contact with oil.

Oil covering their bodies can interfere with breathing, coat the eyes and skin, and can cause them to become stuck in the oil. Oil ingested directly or when eating oiled prey may interfere with digestion or cause internal organ damage.

Some 350 turtles are still in rehabilitation facilities and biologists say they will be released as they are given clean bills of health.

“It’s wonderful news that sea turtles hurt by the Deepwater Horizon spill are now rehabilitated and ready to go home to the Gulf of Mexico,” said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. “This is a testament to the hard work of fish and wildlife agencies and our wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers.”

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