By Katherine Adams
Education and awareness reduce risk for the Kemps ridley, the official turtle of Texas
This year marks Galveston’s 175th birthday, and each month highlights a different aspect of the island’s colorful history. June and July celebrate Tourism Month, but with each year, tourists are less likely to see the beloved sea turtles nesting on the Island. Joanie Steinhaus, Associate Campaign Director for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, doesn’t need any excuse to talk about her life’s passion—saving sea turtles.
“As of May 2013, the Kemps ridley became our official Texas state turtle, but it’s critically endangered,” says Joanie Steinhaus, associate campaign director for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “These are the nests we find most frequently on the beaches of the Texas coastline, but they’re the smallest of the seven species of sea turtle, and their numbers are declining. We’ve found about 153 Kemps ridley nests on Texas beaches in the last year, and they contain 90 to 100 eggs each. But only about one turtle in 1000 reaches maturity.”
Sea turtle population declining
Steinhaus explains there are many reasons for this shocking mortality rate. “In 1987, it became federal law that shrimping boats had to have a Turtle Excluder Device (TED) because so many turtles were getting caught in the shrimp nets and drowning. But even with the TEDs in place, hundreds of sea turtles still drown each year.” The Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s mission is to work within the community to protect endangered sea turtles and to promote the use of the TEDs. “It’s hard to enforce this law, but if they’re used properly, it would be a win-win,” she says. “Galveston Bay is a highly industrialized body of water. Everything in the Gulf impacts the turtles.”
It’s clear how a shrimper’s net can entangle and drown a sea turtle, but there are other, less obvious threats to the lives of these endangered creatures. “The females always return to the general area of the nest, so it’s easier to keep track of them, but the males never return,” Steinhaus explains. “Lights along the beach play a part in distracting the hatchlings. They instinctively run to the water because the light and the waves attract them. If there are other sources of light near the water, they might run in the wrong direction and be killed.”
Education and awareness
“Our purpose is to educate people about recognizing a sea turtle’s nest, who to call if they find one, and what to do if they find a stranded or dead turtle,” says Steinhaus. “From April through July, turtles are nesting. Look for tracks—sets of flippers coming in and out. Turtles use their shell to pack down their clutch of eggs. They flip the sand to camouflage it, which is why they’re difficult to find. If you see a turtle on the beach, please call 1.866.887.8535 (866-TURTLE-5) so we can protect the nest. Lyndsey Howell, a marine biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston, will come anytime of the day or night.
“We remove eggs and take them to Padre Island National Seashore, where they’re protected and released,” Lyndsey says. If anglers hook a turtle, they should not cut the line because it can still swallow the hook and die. “We sometimes find several hooks inside a dead turtle after doing a necropsy. Turtles are attracted to plastics and will die from eating them.”
Stranded turtles should never be pushed back into the ocean. “It’s stranded for a reason,” Steinhaus points out. “It could be injured. Don’t touch it—they bite. Just call the number and they’ll come out immediately to take care of it.”
More information is available at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s new office, located at 2228 Broadway, or visit www.seaturtles.org.