Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Sea turtles are hanging on

Sea turtles are nesting routinely on Florida Keys' beaches, but still are on lists of threatened and endangered species.

The nonprofit Save-A-Turtle group has a team of 25 trained members in Key West that does such tasks as excavating nests after baby turtles hatch -- to look for any that might have gotten stuck -- and following turtle tracks. The organization saves the lives of countless numbers of the reptiles, along with The Turtle Hospital in Marathon.

There were 81 nests recorded at the end of July, according to Save-A-Turtle Field Coordinator Marlene Durazo. Bahia Honda had the most, with 26; other popular nesting grounds included Lower Matecumbe, Long Key, Key West and Boca Chica Key.

The two primary species that lay eggs in the Keys are loggerhead and green sea turtles, but other species have a presence, too, said Turtle Hospital Manager Bette Zirkelbach.

"We had two hatchings of hawksbill sea turtles this year, which are critically endangered," she said.

Both Save-A-Turtle and The Turtle Hospital say garbage is the main killer of sea creatures.

"The turtles think plastic bags and balloons floating in the water are jellyfish, so they eat them and it disrupts their digestive system," said Chris Stone, a Key West Save-A-turtle volunteer.

Zirkelbach points out that proper disposal of fishing tackle can save the lives of many turtles.

"I recently got a number of turtles with fishing hooks inside of them," she said.

"We luckily just had a successful surgery at the hospital ... . If anybody hooks a turtle, we urge them to call FWC [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] to get help. Nobody will be charged with any crime."

Another ongoing threat for green sea turtles has been the papilloma virus. It has been around since the 1930s, Zirkelbach said.

She says the virus is most common around developed islands, including Hawaii and the Florida Keys.

"Tumors affect small tissue, and it eventually kills them," said Zirkelbach. "Over 50 percent of turtles have the virus."

Another obstacle for the hatchlings is getting tangled in roots, or eaten by raccoons and ghost crabs.

It's estimated that only one out of 100 hatchlings make it into adulthood. And a female turtle can't lay eggs until she is 25 years old.

Artificial light is a well-known hazard.

"The hatched turtles rely on the moonlight to make their way back to the water," said Stone. "I tracked a turtle that went 1,000 feet blindly following lights until it made it to the ocean."

She praised people who strive to keep the disorienting lights from shining on the beach.

"Several large resorts have helped out a lot by turning their lights off," she said. "The city also makes an effort."

For more information, visit save-a-turtle.org.

apress@keysnews.com

Alex Press, an intern with The Citizen, is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

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