Texas A&M at Galveston Prof Receives Funds to Save Endangered Turtles

Efforts to save the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle have received a big boost in the form of a two-year $220,162 funding commitment to a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher.

Dr. Marshall and StudentsDr. Christopher Marshall, associate professor of marine biology on the Galveston campus, has been awarded the funds as part of the Deepwater Horizon natural resource damage assessment settlement from the State and Federal natural resource trustees which include the Texas Parks Wildlife Department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas General Land Office, U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Kemp's ridley turtles are the rarest of sea turtles. Their primary nesting grounds are in Tamaulipas, Mexico and along Padre Island on the Texas coast. In 1947, the number of nesting females in Tamaulipas was estimated to be almost 47,000 but that figure shrank to less than 300 by 1985. Their numbers had been recovering but has staggered in recent years, concerning both biologists and conservationists.

Accordingly, Kemp's ridley turtles are still on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) critically endangered list of species, meaning there is a high risk of the species becoming extinct in the foreseeable future.

"The ultimate goal is to delist Kemp's ridley sea turtles from the critically endangered species list, or at the very least, downlist it," Marshall explains. "By downlisted, I mean to drop down from 'critically endangered' to 'endangered' or 'threatened,' and then a couple levels down to 'species of concern.' Below that the population would be considered healthy. Obviously this is a very long-term goal.

"We also hope the renewed Texas-wide effort to conserve Kemp's ridley sea turtles will help encourage enforcement and raise public awareness. We need continued use and enforcement of TEDs, or Turtle Excluder Devices. TEDs are essentially turtle escape hatches on shrimp fishery gear. Without them turtles can get caught in the gear and drown. The implementation of TEDs in the '80s and '90s are broadly considered to have helped the population recover from near extinction. Adult sea turtles will also eat plastic bags and trash in the water that they confuse for jellyfish or other prey items. So doing simple and common sense things like putting your trash in the trash cans when you are on the beach, properly disposing of fishing line, not putting plastics in the water and watching out for sea turtles when you are out on your boat can go a long way to conserve sea turtles.

Turtle Egg"Kemp's ridleys are day-nesting turtles and are an 'arribada' species, meaning they can return to beaches to nest en masse," he notes. "In our area Kemp's ridley turtles usually nest between April 1 to July 15, a time when there are large numbers of tourists visiting beaches. The possibility of seeing a turtle nesting on the beach is inherently exciting to humans." If the public spots a sea turtle on the beach it's important not to disturb it and call the Turtle Hotline to report it to NOAA.

"There are signs all along the beach with the Turtle Hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5 (887-8535). If anyone sees any sea turtle (injured, dead or nesting), or even sea turtle tracks, the public should call the Turtle Hotline immediately."

That call will be picked up by NOAA Fisheries. If it's sea turtle tracks or a nesting turtle, NOAA will call Marshall directly so he can mobilize the response team.

"And if they are around, the public is more than welcome to watch us work with the nests and ask questions," he adds. "People are always asking questions and wanting to learn more about sea turtles, so we are happy to do educational outreach on the spot."

As the Principal Officer on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit, Marshall and his team responds to nesting turtles to collect the turtle eggs and tag the turtles when possible. His Texas A&M team also maintains and supplies the utility vehicles used for motorized patrols on the Upper Texas Coast.

Marshall says this work would not be possible without the partnerships among Texas A&M University at Galveston, Turtle Island Restoration Network and NOAA. His team focuses primarily on the biological response and assists the staff from Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS) in volunteer training regarding the biology of sea turtles and how to spot turtle nests and tracks.

"PAIS oversees the hatching facility where we transfer all the nests we collect," Marshall adds. "The head biologist there, Dr. Donna Shaver, runs the Sea Turtle Science and Recovery division at PAIS and is the Director of the Texas Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network for the entire Texas coast. So we're really under her direction." Hatching the eggs at the PAIS facility increases the hatching success and results in more adult sea turtles in the Gulf.

Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) recruits, coordinates, and schedules all 250 volunteers while also monitoring both walking and motorized survey patrollers, along with conducting community outreach and sponsoring the Turtle Hotline. TIRN is also an important part of the response team, coordinates the trainings and participates in the training sessions, Marshall adds. In addition, TIRN also has important programs that encourage fishermen to dispose of fishing line responsibly and for the public to dispose of trash on the beach responsibly.

"NOAA Fisheries and Padre Island National Seashore are important partners in this project," he says. "They provide the majority of the volunteer training and all public reports of sea turtle sightings go to Lyndsey Howell at NOAA Fisheries. NOAA Fisheries responds to stranded turtles and maintains a sea turtle hospital to rehabilitate any injured sea turtles that are reported by the public or by patrollers. We have enjoyed working closely with them. Cynthia Rubio (PAIS) is responsible for the training of our sea turtle patrol volunteers, as well as all sea turtle patrols along the Texas coast."

Marshall adds that the public can be involved and volunteers are needed. "During patrols, we are actually looking for turtle tracks since they lead to the nest. However, the public reports quite a few of these tracks," he notes. People interested in volunteering for the next season should contact Joanie Steinhaus, Director of TIRN's Gulf Coast office.

To learn more about the project, follow Dr. Marshall on Twitter @EcoMorphLab or head to the new Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Patrol website at http://www.tamug.edu/seaturtlepatrol.