Endangered Turtles Find New Hope at Texas A&M-Galveston Sea Life Facility    

January 10, 2012

Endangered sea turtles now have a new home at Texas A&M University at Galveston and its new Sea Life Facility, where they can recover and be viewed by the general public before their release back into the Gulf of Mexico.

The first rescued turtle was delivered to the facility by Ben Higgins, sea turtle manager for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), where the animal has received treatment and now needs a place to recuperate.

The turtles will be recovering at the Sea Life Facility in the new Oceans and Coastal Studies building on the George Mitchell Campus of TAMUG, an outreach facility and resource for turtles, which have been hospitalized at the National Marine Fisheries Service facility in Galveston, and need to fully recover before being released. The Oceans and Coastal Studies building — known as the only Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building on the Gulf coast — is a state-of-the-art building suited perfectly for this type of rescue work. In this environment, TAMUG students learn to determine signs of distress and disease in turtle species. The public can either view recovering turtles through protective glass, or on the TAMUG and Galveston.com websites.

Dr. William Seitz, associate provost, and senior vice president and chief academic officer who is responsible for developing the facility, said it is a place where turtles and other endangered marine life can recover from the ravages of boat propellers, fishing hooks, entanglement and ingestion of marine debris as well as diseases.

“For many years, the university has been involved in turtle restoration efforts in Texas, and this new facility allows us to provide a new service to these critical endangered animals,” he said.

Dr. Kimberly Reich, director of the facility and marine biology researcher, said turtles play a role in both nature and culture.

“Every animal in the food web plays a crucial role,” she said. “When an endangered species becomes extinct, it is taken out of the ‘prey-predator’ cycle, and that affects the food chain.”

Reich cites the example of the green turtle, which is prevalent in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The green sea turtle plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy sea grass meadows, which creates improved nursery ground for certain commercial and recreational fish” she said. “Along the Texas coast, we have the largest developmental foraging ground for juvenile green turtles, which in turn helps the fishing industry.

“Beyond the economic potential of turtles are their likeability factor and education benefits, Reich explained. “People find turtles relatable and want to learn more about them.”

TAMUG students, working in the facility, have trained with NMFS researchers to be able to determine distress and disease in a turtle. These students are assigned to help oversee the progress of turtles, which are rehabilitated in a safe and well-monitored environment.

Currently, both student workers and volunteers devote time to help with operation maintenance alongside Director Reich. TAMUG marine biology student Josh Carter volunteers each week and said working at the facility to restore turtles is a wonderful opportunity.

“The facility offers so many opportunities to get involved – environmentalism, campus research, public education and community outreach,” he said. “As a marine biology student, I’m thrilled to work in an environment that furnishes some of the skills and knowledge vital to a student of biology.”

Beyond restoring turtles and educating students, some professors will use tanks in other areas of scientific endeavor, and invite colleagues from other institutions to join them. The facility will also offer a public exhibition hall in the front entrance to the facility.

Dr. Donna Lang, TAMUG vice president for academic affairs, said the outreach area, located right outside the facility, will showcase regional information about the turtles, as well as news about current research of various TAMUG professors and updates about laboratories and departments on campus.

“This will allow the general public to view recuperating sea turtles,” she said. “We have never had a place on campus that will allow student groups to actually see some of the things that they learn about. And now, we have a place for students, faculty and the general public to experience an important interaction of science and nature.

Besides scientific turtle displays and TAMUG science displays, the outreach area will contain a scale replica of a Slocum Glider, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) used to provide time-based, three dimensional data at varying depths in the ocean.

Part of the funding for exhibit displays was provided by Carol Allen from H.E.A.R.T. — a local nonprofit dedicated to saving the Kemp’s Ridley turtle from extinction. To contribute to the exhibit or to obtain more information about the TAMUG Sea Life Facility, contact Dr. Reich at (409) 740-4718. Photos of the rescued turtle are accessible on the TAMUG website at www.tamug.edu/sealife.