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Sun Herald News Article by Michael Newsom- November 22, 2010
Under Observation


GULFPORT -- The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies will track endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles with satellite monitoring devices and it plans to chart their course on a website for all to see.

IMMS officials figure this kind of tracking hasn’t been done on turtles in Mississippi waters, but it has been done in other parts of the Gulf. The data IMMS collects will be placed on the IMMS website starting today.

Three turtles released Saturday were visible via satellite, and were heading south toward the Chandeleur Islands on Sunday, said Moby Solangi, IMMS president and executive director. They had moved several miles south of where they were released.

Solangi said the research will yield important data on the turtles, which are disappearing.

“It may be that your children never see these turtles,” Solangi said.

The data on turtles is just part of what Solangi believes is needed to further understand the complex northern Gulf of Mexico. He said when the BP oil gusher pushed crude into the area, the scientific community didn’t have a good handle on what would happen here because the area has been only superficially studied.

“This is one of the most under-studied areas,” Solangi said of the waters off Mississippi and neighboring states. “When all of this happened, no one had answers. They had questions, but no answers.”

So much to do

The oil gusher has kept IMMS busy at its facility off Cowan-Lorraine Road in Gulfport. IMMS staff normally respond to one to four calls about stranded turtles in a given year, but this year they received considerably more.

They’ve recovered more than 300 dead turtles and rescued more than 40 live turtles in the state since the oil spill.

IMMS officials believe the increase is because the oil didn’t hit Mississippi waters as hard as neighboring states, and as a result, turtles migrated here looking for cleaner waters. Another reason could be those turtles followed fish to less oily waters, IMMS said.

The feeling among IMMS officials, though, is it may take years to see the full effects of the spill in wildlife because the oil has to work its way up the food chain.

Several more short-term problems can occur when species encounter oil. Dolphins have delicate skin the crude can harm, and petroleum products can also harm mucus membranes of dolphins and sea turtles. When they surface, dolphins and sea turtles take in large amounts of oxygen and hold it in for several minutes. During this process, oil fumes can enter their bloodstream and affect the liver, brain, kidneys, heart and lungs, among other organs, according to IMMS. Sometimes turtles and other wildlife also eat oiled prey.

Solangi said none of the turtles found in Mississippi after the BP spill appeared to have oil on them, but several found in Alabama that IMMS handled did. Solangi said that doesn’t mean there weren’t any oiled turtles off South Mississippi shores because the strandings and deaths only involve a small portion of the overall turtle population. Since the oil disaster, IMMS has rescued and rehabilitated 57 sea turtles from Mississippi and Alabama, including 47 Kemp’s Ridleys. Many brought in were hurt by fish hooks or simply stranded.

Three of the six turtles -- named Crush, Terry and Marlin -- were released into Mississippi waters Saturday, Solangi said.

Marlin got his name from sculptor Marlin Miller, who is known for his wood carvings of marine life along U.S. 90. Miller was aboard the boat, and had the honor of releasing his namesake into the water.

The other three turtles will be released Tuesday.

The turtles were eased into the water about two miles south of Ship Island off Camille Cut, Miller said. That site was chosen because it’s about 25 feet deep and matches the turtles’ habitat.

“In the wintertime they move south, so we put them in a central location, right in their habitat,” he said.

Two boats from the state Department of Marine Resources and one from IMMS, loaded with scientists and researchers, made the trip to see the release.

Sharon Walker, IMMS director of education and outreach, said she believes the research will be useful as a teaching aid for students and the public. They could track the individual turtles on a website. The data will also go into educational literature, and could be the subject of public lectures, she said.

“We’re just excited about this for what we hope can be an enhanced awareness of sea turtles and endangered species,” Walker said.

Handle with care

On Friday, the IMMS team hunched over Crush, Terry and Marlin.

The turtles were resting on their bellies atop 5-gallon buckets waiting for the intricate, two-hour process that would end with tracking devices attached to their backs.

From a distance, the young, enthusiastic IMMS workers looked much like students in an art class as they traced lines of adhesive on the backs of the lively Kemp’s Ridleys.

The shell is scrubbed with acetone to clean it, lightly sanded, and then an adhesive is applied to hold a neoprene swath, on which the antenna-equipped tracking device is placed. The neoprene is essential because it can secure the device, but still allows the shell to grow. The bonding materials will break down and usually the device and other materials fall off within a couple of years. Researchers say it’s a humane system that yields much information.

Worth the price

Solangi said the tracking devices cost more than $2,000 each and the monitoring, which involves sending the signal to a satellite, costs about $4,000 a year. Every six hours the coordinates will be updated and mapped using GPS technology. Solangi said the data could show how well the rescued turtles are recovering and give researchers data about their movements. This information might help with conservation strategies, officials said.

“One of the good things about this is we can tell the habitat so we can pretty much tell what they are eating, and if they are in grasses or marshes,” Solangi said. “Each habitat has its own group of critters. I think it’s a very needed study and a very revealing study.”

Tasha L. Metz, a senior research associate from Texas A&M University at Galveston, who is working in an advisory role on the IMMS project, said one Kemp’s Ridley they tracked swam all the way from Galveston, up along the coastline and down to the Florida Keys while wearing the tracking equipment. It’s a pretty impressive feat.

“They’re quicker than you would think,” Metz said.

By: Michael Newsom

Sun Herald reporters Donna Harris and Robin Fitzgerald contributed to this story.

Follow the turtles on the Satellite Tracking Map!

SunHerald Photos by John Fitzhugh

IMMS Photos

Marlin Miller releasing his namesake 'Marlin'
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