Saturday, June 20, 2009

Timer could save sea turtles from drowning in nets

In this photo released by the New England Aquarium, New England Aquarium biologist Adam Kennedy lifts Herb, a rescued 75-pound loggerhead sea turtle, onto a treatment table at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008. (AP / New England Aquarium)

The Associated Press

BOURNE, Massachusetts -- Fishery managers trying to protect rare sea turtles from dying in fishing nets have tapped a Cape Cod company to build a device they think can help balance turtle protection with profitable fishing.

The "tow-time logger" is an 18-centimetre, silver cylinder that attaches to fishing nets and records how long the net stays underwater.

That time is crucial if a turtle gets snared in the nets dragged behind fishing trawlers. Federal research indicates the vast majority of sea turtles survive entanglement -- but only if the net is pulled up in less than 50 minutes.

With the logger, regulators can avoid other, potentially more onerous, restrictions on perpetually struggling fishermen -- such as shutting down fishing areas or requiring turtle-saving gear that doesn't work well in all nets. In fisheries where they decide time limits would work best, they wouldn't have to depend on an honour system to make sure nets are pulled up in time.

"Turtles have also been around since the time of the dinosaurs," said Elizabeth Griffin of the environmental group, Oceana. "They're cool animals that I think most people want to see continue to exist."

The logger was built under a US$25,000 federal contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by Onset Computer Corp., a Bourne-based supplier of data loggers for energy and environmental monitoring. It starts recording water depth every 30 seconds once the net drops below two meters. If the net stays under beyond a preset time limit, the logger records it, and the infraction can be discovered when regulators download its data.

The device's early tests at sea have been successful, and work is ongoing to toughen it for the real-life rigours, such as being banged on fishing boat decks. The company expects it to cost between $600 and $800, an expense that would fall to fishermen.

Even when the logger is perfected, regulators know limiting how long the nets stay underwater is no cure-all as they devise rules, which they hope to propose for public comment by 2010, to meet a new federal requirement to protect sea turtles from trawler fishing nets.

Some environmentalists say turtles shouldn't be kept underwater at all because even relatively short times of being trapped underwater without oxygen hurt them.

Griffin says there's also not enough data on how trapped turtles fare in colder waters, so no one really knows how long they can be kept under and survive.

The data logger at least makes briefer tow times a feasible way to protect turtles, if researchers can sort out what's safe, she said.

Fishermen are skeptical. They say short tows aren't practical in most fisheries, such as those in deeper waters, where a worthwhile catch is impossible if the nets must constantly be pulled up.

"It's a bad idea," said James Fletcher, a veteran fisherman and now head of the North Carolina-based United National Fisherman's Association.

"Nobody's going to love the idea," acknowledged Henry Milliken, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA. But he added fishermen might prefer limits on how long the net can be underwater to harsher alternatives, such as closing fishing areas.

"The idea is that we're looking at providing options to the managers in the future," Milliken said.

As the NMFS tries to determine which steps will or won't work, it's held public meetings this spring from New York to Georgia.

The turtle most frequently caught in trawl nets in the Atlantic is the loggerhead, the threatened 113-kilogram giants named for their relatively large heads. In U.S. waters, every sea turtle is listed as either endangered or threatened, so any turtle deaths in fishing nets hit the populations hard.

The most common way to protect turtles right now is the Turtle Excluder Device, often a circular, barred frame attached near the front of fishing nets. The bars are big enough for fish and other sea life to slip through, but too narrow for turtles, which bounce out of the net before they get caught.

The excluder devices have had success in some fisheries, including the Southeast's shrimp trawl fishery, but bigger species, such as horseshoe crab, monkfish and flounder, can bounce out along with the turtles and make the nets far too inefficient.

Greg DiDomenico of the Garden State Seafood Association, a New Jersey trade group, said since the new rules will apply to fisheries from Cape Cod to Florida -- where the turtles swim -- whatever shakes out is bound to be felt industry-wide. That includes "huge negative impacts on some fisheries," he said.

But with regulations coming, DiDomenico said his best hope is that regulators don't broadly force a turtle-protecting solution, including the time logger being developed, on a diverse fleet.

"It's not one-size-fits-all," he said.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Turtles Get a Head Start

BUZZARDS BAY — Out in the wild, tiny northern red-bellied cooters would most certainly be lunch for skunks and raccoons.

But six turtles with fire-colored tummies were more eaters than entrees yesterday as they devoured shreds of lettuce like termites tearing through wood.

To watch a video of the colorful

Northern red-bellied cooters

during feeding time, tune into at noon today.

The undersized bunch arrived at the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay two weeks ago with the goal of getting fatter — or at least big enough to be safely released back into their natural freshwater habitat.

In Massachusetts, northern red-bellied cooters are native only to Plymouth County — at least 250 miles north of where most of the species resides in mid-Atlantic states.

The species is endangered in Massachusetts and classified as threatened on a federal level, said Don Lewis, the center's chief operating officer.

Nearly 100 percent of northern red-bellied cooters that hatch in the wild are eaten by predators such as skunks, raccoons, herons and bullfrogs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site. Those dire survival numbers prompted federal and Bay State wildlife officials to set up a "head-starting" program for the turtles.

"They are pretty rare everywhere we look," Lewis said. "That's why we protect them, that's why we give them a head start and that's why we're trying to reverse the decline in populations."

Research biologists find red-bellied cooter nests and protect them with screens. When hatchlings start to emerge from a nest, biologists remove half of them and take them to marine rehabilitation centers where they are fed and kept warm for about eight months. They are then released to pond and river habitats. Red-bellied cooters that get a head start have a high rate of survival, according to the wildlife service.

Lewis said the center's cooters, which were born in October, are healthy and will be released when they are "hockey-puck size," likely within a month.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Turtles on the move, burying eggs in dry ground

GateHouse News Service
Posted Jun 10, 2009 @ 10:45 PM

Raynham —
June is turtle time in these parts.

Regardless of all obstacles in their path, snapping, painted, red-bellied and all other species of turtles are leaving their watery homes for higher ground to bury their eggs.

“It goes on everywhere and as long as people give them a good wide berth they won’t bother anyone,” said biologist Dick Turner of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Last week, two slow-moving female snapping turtles from the Forge River were seen crawling across the busy parking lot outside Town Hall in search of a dry home to incubate their eggs.

But it’s a journey fraught with danger.

“With alarming frequency these ancient reptiles are cut off from traditional nesting areas by an ever-increasing network of roads, leaving them vulnerable to high rates of road kill,” explained Mass Wildlife Director Wayne MacCallum in a press release.

The report said humans can help the annual reptile migration by carefully moving turtles out of harms way. The sometimes feisty snapping turtles can be held by the tail while placing one hand on its underside to support the animal’s weight. Other turtles can be safely grasped by the sides of the shell.

Officials stressed, however, the turtles should be aimed in their intended direction and never brought to another location or pond.

But even safe passage does not ensure that a turtle and her eggs will survive. Skunks and raccoons feast on the shallow nests, which contain between 30 to 40 eggs.

Turtle biologist Lori Herb said the nests are most vulnerable to invasion during the first two weeks of being deposited by their mother.

She said a temporary fence can be used to protect the nests, but they must permit sunlight and be removed well before the hatchlings are expected to start their journey to lowland areas. “The main thing is trying to leave them alone,” Erb said.

Because of an abundance of wetlands, Southeastern Massachusetts is home to nearly every species of turtle found in the state.

But in suburban communities like Raynham, she said, development in habitat areas has put the hatchling mortality rate at almost 100 percent.

Taunton Gazette photo by TIM FAULKNER
Shown here is one of two female snapping turtles from the Forge River digging for a spot to bury their eggs behind Raynham Town Hall last week. State wildlife officials said most turtles return to the same location each year to lay their eggs.


Spring brings out the snapping turtle to lay eggs on land

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Story and photos by STAN FREEMAN

In spring, a female turtle can be, well, a fish out of water.

Those that inhabit ponds, lakes and rivers are emerging from them early this month to lay their eggs on dry land.

And for one species, the common snapping turtle, it is the time of year when you're most likely to see this super-sized reptile. The rest of the year, this belligerent-looking animal is usually hunkered down in the mud underwater, feeding on whatever happens to pass by its considerably strong jaws.

The largest of Massachusetts' native turtles found inland (one caught in the state weighed 76 pounds), the snapping turtle appears almost prehistoric, like a leftover from the age of dinosaurs, with its craggy shell, sharp claws - and did I mention those jaws?

A lot of tall stories are told about snapping turtles, said Alan M. Richmond, a herpetologist at University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

"I got one e-mail from someone who saw one in Forge Pond in Granby and said it was the size of a Volkswagen Jetta. But usually they run 10 or so pounds, with the bigger ones going up to 35 pounds, with a (shell) length of up to 19.5 inches. So when you see people holding their arms all the way out and saying they saw one this big, I think they might be mistaken," he said.

How strong are their jaws? As adults, they have no natural predators. A large snapper could bite off a finger or toe. And on land, they can be aggressive, swiftly lunging and snapping at perceived threats. So they should be approached with great care.

"However, they're pretty timid in the water," Richmond said.

"Their normal tendency is to try and escape. If they're in the water, they want to get away from you. That's not to say that if you were trying to abuse one in the water, it wouldn't try and defend itself," he said.

Common snappers sexually mature at about 5 to 7 years, and they can live to about 40. A female snapper looking to lay eggs will usually seek out a nest site in an open area 100 yards or more from water. A shallow hole will be dug in soft sand or loam, or it might be excavated in vegetation debris or a sawdust pile, or a nest could be fashioned in a beaver or muskrat lodge. Typically, 20 to 40 golf-ball-sized eggs will be laid in a clutch.

"They are out laying eggs about now," Richmond said. "The young will emerge in late August or early September, but if environmental conditions aren't perfect, the little turtles will hatch and stay in the nest over the winter."

Interestingly, the gender of a baby snapper is determined not by genetics, but by the temperature of its surroundings during the incubation period. Typically, at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, there will be only females. At 71 to 74 degrees, there will be both males and females. And from 75 to 79 degrees, you would get all males. From 80 to 85 degrees you would again get males and females, but at 86 degrees, there would be only females.

"What a great mechanism. If you have a nest in a sunny area, you might have females on the top, males and females in the middle and on the bottom you might have all males," he said.

However, in the long run, factoring in all kinds of weather, equal numbers of males and females manage to be born, he said.

If, in coming weeks, you should encounter a snapping turtle crossing a road or traveling somewhere that it shouldn't, and it must be moved, either for its own protection or someone else's, what's the best way to move it?

Richmond said that it should not be picked up by the tail. "That can injure it."

Also, with its surprising quickness and habit of snapping, the shell should not be picked up with hands by someone who doesn't handle snappers regularly.

A snapper has a much longer neck than you would expect - it can typically reach almost halfway back across its shell with its head.

One way to approach the task is to grab the tail and then slide a hand from the rear under its belly and pick it up like a platter to carry it to safety. Another method is to maneuver a snow shovel under it, without getting too close to its jaws, and then slide it to a safe location.

Absent a handy snow shovel or the courage to get a hand near it, though, call the environmental police or the local police.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009


READY, SET, CRAWL: 138 endangered turtles released in Middleboro


For 138 turtles, it was a chance to find a new home. For the kids and adults, it was just plain fun.

Northern Red-bellied Cooters took to the water during Monday’s 29th annual turtle release on the shores of Great Quittacas and Pocksha ponds.

Procaccini, 3, of Lakeville, was there with her mother, Sarah Procaccini of Lakeville, and her three siblings — Caleb, 5, Aaron, 1 and 4-month-old Joey.

“When I feeled it, it felt like it was going to bite me,” said Hannah. “He didn’t bite. I put it in the water and he went somewhere over to the beach.”

But the event didn’t attract only kids. Ruth E. Watt, 83, of Middleboro, wasn’t interested in releasing a turtle herself, she just wanted to see was it was all about.

“It was my first time seeing it,” she said. “It was fun.”

Found only in Plymouth County, the Northern Red-bellied Cooters are on the state and federal endangered list. Marion Larson, a biologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said the turtles were collected from their nests last fall and “headstarted” — nurtured over the winter by volunteers across the state.
When raised in warm aquariums over the winter with an unlimited food supply, their growth is accelerated, and larger turtles are not as vulnerable to predators when released.

Lawson said the turtles are marked with a code so biologists can identify them. So far, about 3,000 turtles have been released since the program began in 1980, Lawson said.

For environmentalists, it was a big day in Middleboro. In addition to the turtles, a pair of eaglets were banded on Pocksha Pond. The pair, weighing in at 8 pounds and 7.25 pounds, were banded by Jason Zimmer, south east district manager of the Division of Fisheries and Game.

A climber went up the tree where the eagles were nesting, lowered the eaglets in a basket to be weighed in and banded. So far the nest has been active since 1993, and this year’s young bring the grand total to 29 eaglets that have been born in Lakeville, said Catherine Williams spokesperson for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

During the winter survey, there were about 80 bald eagles counted across the state, Williams said.

Dru Carbone of Middleboro was there to learn how to care for her painted turtle that the cat dragged to her doorstep 15 years ago. She was told that even though her turtle has been in captivity for several years, it can be released in the wild.

“I probably will,” she said, but it will take some time. “It’s my baby.”

Carbone lives close to Pocksha Pond, and said turtles are her passion. “I love turtles, they’re amazing.”


Monday, June 1, 2009

Rare baby turtles released near Middleborough ponds

By Michele Richinick, Globe Correspondent

As part of an ongoing effort to protect endangered species, 138 baby turtles were released into the wild this morning between Pocksha and Great Quittacas ponds in Middleborough.

The Northern Red-Bellied Cooters were removed from the wild last fall and paired with educational and scientific facilities across the state as part of a program called Headstarting, which helps to accelerate growth and reduces the likelihood of death during a turtle’s first year of life.

Each year, participants from Massachusetts schools and nonprofit organizations raise the turtles in warm aquarium environments with unlimited food, which allow them to grow faster and ultimately make them less vulnerable to predators in the wild, officials said.

"The idea is to give the species a good head start on life," said Lisa Capone, press secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "It's also a great educational opportunity for the schools and nonprofit groups that take part."

Participants in the program release the turtles into a habitat where there is evidence of existing turtles, said Jason Zimmer, southeast district manager for MassWildlife. A portion of the turtles are always released in Middleborough, but some of the turtles are set free in ponds throughout southeastern Massachusetts.

Originally known as the Plymouth red-belly turtle, Northern Red-Bellied Cooters are listed as endangered species at both the state and federal levels and are found only in southeastern Massachusetts. They are the state’s second largest freshwater turtle, after the snapping turtle. They can grow up to 12 inches and weigh up to 10 pounds, according to the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. Hatchlings are usually one inch long and, like adults, they have yellow stripes on the head, neck, and limbs.

Hatchling mortality is high for the species, with intense predation on the eggs by skunks and raccoons. Bullfrogs, wading birds, and predatory fish, like bass and pickerel, also prey on the turtles.

Students from 14 Massachusetts schools and colleges participated in the program, along with Zoo New England, Museum of Science, New England Aquarium, Berkshire Museum of Pittsfield, Buttonwood Park Zoo of New Bedford, National Marine Life Center of Bourne, the South Shore Science Center of Norwell, and the Thornton Burgess Society of Sandwich.