Financial Support Sought for Care of Florida’s Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

GAINSVILLE, Florida, February 3, 2010 (ENS) – Chilly ocean waters during Florida’s recent cold snap posed a survival threat to thousands of endangered sea turtles in Florida waters that persists although the waters have warmed somewhat.

In winter, sea turtles usually swim to Florida for its warm waters and rich food sources, but this January Florida temperatures hit a 20 year low, and the National Weather Service forecasts “below normal temperatures” in February.

Thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles were found floating listlessly in the water or washing up on shore. In the worst cases, turtles become catatonic and cannot even lift their heads out of the water to breathe.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FWC, conservation groups, rehabilitation facilities and aquariums responded but now are struggling with financial shortfalls.

Cold-stunned sea turtles at triage center at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Photo by Joy Hill courtesy FWC)

The FWC, with its partners, worked together to pick up turtles disabled by the cold. If left unaided, most of these turtles would not have survived. Many would have been attacked by predators, hit by boats or simply drowned, the state wildlife agency said.

The sea turtles were taken to staging areas, where biologists assessed their conditions and to triage areas and rehabilitation facilities. Each animal was examined for injuries, measured, weighed and a tissue sample taken. Metal tags with a unique identification numbers were placed on the sea turtles’ front flippers. The tags will provide biologists with useful information in the future, including where the turtles travel and their rate of survival.

“We’ve been able to tag many more turtles than ever before, which enables us to learn about their biology,” said FWC biologist Dr. Blair Witherington. “It’s been a great opportunity for data collection; it’s unprecedented to have access to so many turtles at one time.”

The majority of the cold-stunned sea turtles are green turtles, a federally listed endangered species. Other species include Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill, both endangered, and the loggerhead, a threatened species.

The world’s oldest sea turtle conservation group, Caribbean Conservation Corporation, responded along with other rescue organizations in what is being called the largest turtle rescue effort in history.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said CCC Executive Director David Godfrey. “I can’t say enough about the heroic efforts of volunteers, conservation groups and agency staff around Florida who responded swiftly to this crisis.”

Historically, says Godfrey, healthy populations of sea turtles were not jeopardized by unusually cold weather, but sea turtle populations already stressed by habitat destruction, poor water quality and other human caused threats are much more vulnerable to severe weather like this.

Loggerhead sea turtle is released into the ocean by staff from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida. January 28, 2010. (Photo courtesy CMA)

Rescued sea turtles are being released back into the wild as quickly as possible. Some are transported south along the coast to warmer water. In the Florida Panhandle, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy have transported sea turtles offshore to warm water for release.

With the number of turtles rescued from the cold amounting to some 4,500 turtles, rehabilitation facilities and aquariums still are struggling to cope with the crisis. Rehab facilities and aquariums have been stretched to the limit and CCC is coordinating a statewide effort to provide assistance to all of the turtles still being treated.

Of the thousands of turtles rescued, many have been released as temperatures warmed. But hundreds of turtles died and hundreds more are in critical condition and fighting for survival in facilities around Florida.

CCC is raising emergency funds to help pay for veterinary care and medical supplies to treat hundreds of sea turtles struggling to survive. Some emergency funds are being provided through Florida’s Sea Turtle Grants Program, which raises money through the sale of Florida’s sea turtle license plate. About $20,000 is available from this source, but Godfrey estimates that four times that much will be needed to adequately care for all the turtles.

For more information on this emergency fund, please visit www.cccturtle.org or call 1-800-678-7853. To see the sea turtle recovery effort in action click here.

FWC biologists say they are confident that most of the sea turtles will not suffer long-term impacts from the stunning event.

While people are trying to help the distressed turtles, the FWC points out it is illegal to possess a sea turtle or any part of the sea turtle, dead or alive.

“Sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act,” said FWC sea turtle biologist Robbin Trindell. “Therefore, it is illegal to disturb them or to possess them.”

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