Caring For the World’s Rarest Sea Turtle In The Florida Panhandle

Jun 24, 2016

The Gulf Coast is home to the most endangered sea turtle in the world: the Kemp’s Ridley. The fate of the turtles depends on the region’s coastal wetlands, where tropical storms, and oils spills have taken their toll. Here's a look into the uncertain future of the delicate ecosystem.

Kemp's Ridley sea turtles are the most endangered in the world, and are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/

Decades of conservation efforts have brought the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles back from the edge of extinction. Nesting grounds in Mexico and Texas are now protected, and devices used by fishermen keep the turtles out of their nets. But their native habitat, the Gulf’s coastal wetlands, is disappearing. Thirty miles south of the Florida capitol, scientists at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab are trying to keep the turtles afloat.

“I’m mostly dry now but I was completely soaked head to toe getting this one out of the tank because he’s sneaky," she said.

Amy Morgan and her colleagues at the marine lab rescue Kemp’s Ridleys that are snagged by the hooks of local fishermen.

“Worst case scenario for us is if they swallow it. Then we have to take them to the vet, they’ll have surgery. They’ll get an incision right on the side of their neck. It’s worst case because when you anesthetize them, it’s really hard to bring them back. It takes a really long time. So one of the ones back here I spent nine hours overnight. They have to breathe every 15 minutes. And once they’re anesthetized they don’t breathe on their own. So you have to give them CPR basically every 15 minutes,” she said.

But stainless steel hooks aren’t the only threat. Like many of the human residents of the Gulf Coast, Kemp’s Ridleys trawl for seafood in the salt marshes along the shore. And like the fishermen, the fate of the turtles is tied to the coastal wetlands. For years, tropical storms, rising sea levels and oil spills have wreaked havoc, including in Florida’s own Apalachicola Bay.

“Apalachicola surely would’ve died had it not bordered one of the most productive bays in the world. Today it’s a quiet place. Almost all of its citizens depend on the bay for a living.”

Anthony Hernandez of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab releases a sea turtle named Tony at St. Marks.

That’s a documentary made by WFSU- TV in the 1970s, when the bay’s future seemed brighter. Apalachicola serves as one of the habitats for the Kemp’s Ridleys, as they skirt the coast from Florida to Texas. The bay and the adjacent town were built on a once booming oyster market. But in recent years, Apalachicola has been on a decline, rocked by droughts, the threat of storms and overfishing. Biologists worry the loss of the bay and its oysters, will threaten the entire ecosystem, including the turtles.

“So your oysters are what we call a keystone species. They create the habitat for all the little crabs and fish that swim around there and conchs that come in and feed on the oysters. So if we’re starting to lose our oysters, you’re taking out basically the foundation for everything else. Which means you lose your oysters, you lose your food for your sea turtles,” he said.

Cypress Rudloe runs the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and he says when the oysters go, so does everything else.

“It collapses. A keystone really started with Roman arches. At the top of the keystone was what held the whole arch together. Once you remove that keystone the whole thing collapses. And if you lose your oysters you will see that,” he said.

After recovering from a hooked flipper, a turtle named Tony was released at the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge. The marine lab’s Anthony Hernandez did the honors.

Tony is a Kemps Ridley as well, just like all of the turtles we let go today. Luckily she only got hooked by the flipper so she’s ready to get back in the water. Alright say goodbye!" he said as he eased the turtle into the water.

Nesting season for the Kemp’s Ridleys is in full swing along coastal Mexico and Texas. The hatchlings should emerge and take to the sea by the end of July. Hernandez and the biologists at the lab hope there will be a healthy ecosystem when they return to Florida’s Gulf Coast.