TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- Even though the recent cold snap brought many cold-stunned sea turtles into shallow waters and onto shorelines across the state, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and its many partners saved the majority of the animals from certain death.
Frigid water temperatures stunned thousands of sea turtles throughout the state. If left unaided, most of these turtles would not have survived. Many would have been attacked by predators, been hit by boats or simply drowned. Rescuers worked feverishly for more than a week to save the immobilized animals, rescuing and eventually releasing nearly 80 percent of the affected sea turtles. FWC biologists are confident that most of the sea turtles will not suffer long-term impacts from the stunning event.
Additional good news is emerging from those who have been working diligently to save the animals. Rescue of the sea turtles by the FWC and its many partners could prove beneficial to the animals in the long term.
"We've been able to tag many more turtles than ever before, which enables us to learn about their biology," said Dr. Blair Witherington, FWC biologist. "It's been a great opportunity for data collection; it's unprecedented to have access to so many turtles at one time."
The majority of the sea turtles affected by the cold weather are green turtles, a federally listed endangered species. Other species include Kemp's Ridley and hawksbill, both endangered, and the loggerhead, a threatened species. Scientists will use genetic information obtained from the turtles to better understand where these turtles originally hatched. Biologists also will collect valuable information on size, geographic distribution, health status and other factors. Tags on released turtles will provide biologists with useful information for years to come, including where they travel and their rate of survival.
The sea turtles were taken to staging areas, where biologists assessed their conditions. Metal tags were placed on the sea turtles' front flippers and various data were obtained. From there, the sea turtles were either transported to rehabilitation facilities or returned to the sea if they were healthy and water conditions were suitable.
"The tremendous effort put forth by all of our partners, volunteers and FWC staff has been a life-saver for sea turtles," said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. "I'm extremely proud to be associated with this agency and all the wonderful organizations and people who stepped up in this time of need. With the enormous outpouring of help on this, together we managed to take a potentially tragic situation and turn it into a win-win for science and most importantly, for sea turtles."
Private and corporate citizens alike contributed to the effort, with many businesses providing necessary equipment and services at little or no cost.
"As a global company headquartered in Florida, we are especially aware of the need to protect all of Florida's natural resources, so this was an easy decision to provide Ryder trucks for transporting these animals," said Rich Mohr, director of rental for Ryder in Miami. "We very much appreciated the opportunity to assist with the conservation of the sea turtle."
Most of the healthy turtles have been released back into the ocean where the water conditions are now 60 degrees or warmer. In the Panhandle this means transporting the sea turtles out eight to 13 miles.
"It is best to get them back into their marine habitat as soon as logistics and weather permit," Witherington said. "They are better off in bay and lagoon waters than in the temporary holding tanks or small pools at rehab facilities."
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