Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Another dead sea turtle washes ashore

Another dead sea turtle washes ashore

Standard-Times correspondent
July 22, 2008 6:00 AM

A sea turtle washed up on Cuttyhunk on Monday, the third dead leatherback found on the southern coast of Massachusetts this month.

Wildlife experts headed out to the island after receiving a call in the early afternoon, hoping to learn more about the animal and how it died.

"It is a female, about 500 pounds, that was tagged from West Trinidad," said Bob Prescott, sanctuary director for the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

"We are trying to learn as much about it as we can."

The latest dead leatherback follows two of its kind on southern Massachusetts beaches.

Keith Kauppila found one washed up on the rocks in front of his house on Ricketson's Point in Dartmouth on the night of July 13. That came after a day of heavy surf produced by Hurricane Bertha.

Another leatherback was found on Popponesset Beach in Mashpee on July 3.

This is the season for sea turtles. From New Bedford to Provincetown, leatherbacks and loggerheads have been popping up with regularity in the warm waters of Buzzards Bay and the Nantucket Sound.

There could be more of them nearby this year because they were pushed up the coast by Hurricane Bertha. Or it could be people are just seeing them more, wildlife officials say.

"We get called out 15 or 20 times a year to free turtles that get tangled in fishing gear," said Brian Sharp, a rescue associate with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

"We are getting a lot of calls about turtles this year," Mr. Prescott of the Audubon Society said.

"The water is warm this year. It might be that. We are also told there are a lot of jellyfish (which the turtles eat) in the area. It might be that. But it does appear there are more leatherbacks than usual this year."

In Rhode Island and Connecticut, biologists from the Mystic Aquarium respond to calls of turtles in distress. There have been three dead loggerheads in Rhode Island in July.

"We are getting a few more calls, but not significantly more," said Cindy Davis, a stranding assistant with the Mystic Aquarium. "We get calls from July to October."

There are five types of sea turtles that make their way into these waters in the summer, swimming up from the coast of South America and the Gulf of Mexico, following the Gulf Stream to Cape Cod and sometimes up to Maine.

Leatherbacks are the largest of the group. They weigh 500 to 1,000 pounds. Their backs, 5 feet across, look like the brown bottom of an overturned rowboat.

Loggerheads and Kemp's Ridleys are generally around 30 inches long and 100 pounds. Kemp's Ridleys are often found stranded on the beaches of southern Massachusetts. Green turtles and hawksbills are rare visitors.

None of those turtles is common. All are either listed as endangered or threatened species. And they are not numerous.

"We are getting more calls this year reporting them, but we don't know if that is because people are reporting more and we are getting more calls about the same turtles," Mr. Prescott said. "We believe we have 10 to 15 leatherbacks in Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound."

That number was reduced by one some time before July 13.

"I took my dogs out for a walk that night and one of them pointed on something," Mr. Kauppila said. "It was a huge turtle. It has a flipper span of 7 feet. The heavy seas brought it right to my front steps."

Mr. Kauppila got on the phone, eventually reaching the New England Aquarium in Boston, which dispatched a research team to dissect the turtle and collect samples.

"It had very significant propeller wounds to its back, but it is unknown if that happened before or after it died," said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium. The turtle was so badly decomposed it could not be determined if it died because it was hit by a boat or if it was run over after it died, he said.

Researchers still learn a lot by examining the turtle. Mr. Prescott said they look for tags — the female found Monday on Cuttyhunk was tagged by biologists in Trinidad when it was a baby, he said.

They also take tissue samples looking for parasites and chemical contaminants and try to examine the content of the animal's stomach to determine how it lived and why it died.

If a living turtle is seen swimming freely, that should be reported to 1-800-SEA-TURT, 1-800-732-8878. Biologists use that information to track migration patterns of the turtles, Mr. Sharp said.

Dead turtles should be reported to the New England Aquarium at (617) 973-5200. If you spot a turtle that is sick or injured or entangled in rope, litter or fishing gear, call the Provincetown Center at 1-800-900-3622.

"We ask people, if they can, to back off 100 or 200 feet and keep the turtle in sight until help arrives," said Mr. Sharp of the Provincetown Center. "We work with harbormasters and the Coast Guard. We can usually respond within an hour or so."

Turtles entangled in rope and fishing gear usually swim away before help arrives, Mr. Sharp said, so boaters are asked to keep the animals in sight so they can direct rescuers to the turtle.

No one should touch the turtles or try to help them, Mr. Sharp said.

"We want to make sure the animal is disentangled properly," he said. "We'll make sure all the lines are freed and we'll provide what veterinary care that we can. We try to maximize the chances the animal will survive."

And they like to see the turtles themselves, Mr. Sharp said.

"We try to get as much data as we can," he said. "Every time we go out, we learn something new."


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