Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cape Cod Mystery: A Surge of Stranded Sea Turtles - via Herp Digest

by James Gorman, New York Times 12/13/14 WELLFLEET, Mass. — 
For as long as anyone knows, young sea turtles have ventured up the East 
Coast, leaving warm seas to feed on crabs and other prey. And some of 
them have lingered too long in northern waters and been stunned when the 
season turns cold.
Around this time of year, volunteers regularly patrol the beaches of Cape Cod Bay to rescue turtles that wash up at high tide — six of seven species of sea turtles are endangered — so they can be rehabilitated and relocated to warmer shores in the South.
But this year the usual trickle of stranded turtles has turned into a flood, and nobody seems to know why.
Since mid-November, volunteers on turtle patrol have found nearly 1,200, almost all young Kemp’s ridley turtles, the most endangered of turtle species. That is almost three times as many as in the previous record year, and many more times the number in an average year. More turtles are being found every day.
Most of them have survived, but hundreds have not.
The stranded turtles, typically 2 to 3 years old and each of them between the size of a dinner plate and a serving platter, have stretched the abilities of the veterinarians and volunteers who rescued them, and the capacities of aquariums as far away as Texas to care for the survivors until they can be released.
Bob Prescott, the director of the Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, who has been saving turtles for 32 years, said he had never seen anything like it. When he started walking the beaches, he said, he would find one or two turtles a season, warm them up and drive them to the Boston airport himself. “I would go to Logan and give turtles to the pilot of an Eastern Airlines jet,” he said. The pilot would keep the turtle in the cockpit and hand it off to a turtle expert in Florida.
Not this year. “One day, 157 came in,” he said.
The sanctuary now has about 150 volunteers to walk the beaches, help warm the turtles and drive them to the New England Aquarium hospital in Quincy for further care. The volunteers, using their own cars and vans, put the turtles in empty cardboard banana cartons lined with donated bath towels of every color.
Volunteers “hit every supermarket on the Cape” to get the banana boxes, Mr. Prescott said. 
“I’m at a loss for words,” said Connie Merigo, director of marine animal rescue and rehabilitation at the aquarium, who is on the receiving end of Mass Audubon’s work. At one point, the turtles were coming in so fast that the aquarium set up a satellite recovery operation here in Wellfleet.
A normal year would be 70 to 90,” she said last week. “We’re approaching 700.” Those are the live turtles. The Wellfleet sanctuary has hundreds that did not make it. The bodies are stored to study over the winter. 
At the aquarium hospital, veterinarians and volunteers have been working 12- to 16-hour days since mid-November. They test the turtles for dehydration, give some of them X-rays to see if they have pneumonia, treat them with medication if necessary, and care for them while they start swimming in baby pools and then graduate to larger ones. Each day the turtles’ body temperatures are raised five degrees. 
Now, when the turtles are ready to move — to be released in Florida or held in other aquariums until sea temperatures rise — one friendly pilot is no longer enough. The Coast Guard flew 193 turtles to Florida in November. Private planes have carried others. Staff members from the National Aquarium in Baltimore drove some turtles from Boston. Every aquarium on the East Coast has taken in some of them until they can be released later. 
“We’ve called in all the favors we can,” Dr. Charles J. Innis, director of animal health for the New England Aquarium, said last week. At the time, there were about 200 turtles in various stages of recovery at the animal hospital the aquarium built and staffed. 
The number of turtles stranded on Cape Cod Bay beaches has been increasing for decades, perhaps because conservation efforts have been successful for the Kemp’s ridley, perhaps because the ocean has warmed. 
But nothing suggested that a year like this would happen. Previous record years were 1989, with about 100 stranded turtles; 1999, when 163 were found; and 2012, with 413. 
Over the years, Mr. Prescott said, as the number of turtles rescued on the Cape increased, those found on the north shore of Long Island decreased. This year, only 23 had been found in New York by early December. 
It is tempting to speculate that a warming ocean may have something to do with the change, Mr. Prescott said, but there is no proof of that.
"Cold-stunning events are really hard things to explain,” said Selina Heppell, an Oregon State University biologist who has been studying changes in the Kemp’s ridley population for 20 years. “They are caused by local conditions, such as sharp changes in temperature, but the role of currents and turtle behavior and condition prior to the events are not well understood.”
She added: “The long-term effects of large events like this one are hard to predict because we don’t know how many turtles actually died but were not seen.” 
The number of Kemp’s ridley turtle nests reached a low of 702 in 1985, down from 40,000 or more in the late 1940s, but it had been rising for years, Dr. Heppell said, because of efforts to conserve the species’ primary nesting area in Mexico and a smaller one in Texas. 
Nesting fell off in 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It rebounded in the next two years, but fell again in 2013 and 2014. Before the drop in nesting, Ms. Heppell said, it seemed that the Kemp’s ridley population might grow enough that it would come off the endangered list. About 11,500 nests were counted this year, compared with 20,000 in 2011. 
Scientific studies of Kemp’s ridley turtles have concentrated on nesting, so the lives of the young turtles that swim up the East Coast are less understood. What is known, said Mr. Prescott, is that they often get caught in Cape Cod Bay, as do dolphins and whales sometimes, because of the shape of the land, or the currents and the tides. 
“Cape Cod Bay is a trap,” he said, and when the water temperature drops below about 65 degrees, usually in mid-November, the turtles start showing up on the beach. 
The rescue program, on the beach and in the aquarium, depends almost entirely on volunteers, who work long hours, walk the beach in bitter cold and take their commitments very seriously. 
Bill Allan, who patrols a beach in Eastham and supervises other volunteers, scheduled a hip replacement in October so it would not interfere with his work on diamondback terrapin hatchlings, which ends in September, or the sea turtle rescue patrols later in the fall. By mid-November, when there were four days of onshore winds that helped push the turtles ashore, he was back on the beach. 
“The first day I kind of lost count after two dozen turtles,” he said Mr. Allan is committed to the effort, he said, because “you’re the difference between life and death” for the turtles. 
Turtles will continue to wash up on the bay beaches until the end of December, although as the weather gets colder, fewer of them will survive. Cold-stunned turtles that seem to be dead often recover, however, so every turtle gets 24 hours during which it is presumed to be alive, even if does not look it, Mr. Prescott said. 
After weighing and measuring one unmoving turtle before placing it in a banana box, he insisted that revival was still a possibility. 
“We don’t know that one’s dead until tomorrow,” he said.
Correction: December 12, 2014 
An earlier version of this article misstated the total number of species of sea turtles. There are seven species, not six

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