Warmer Gulf Waters Are Messing Things up for Texas Sea Turtles

You'd think the warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico would be a good thing for sea turtles -- the turtle equivalent of excellent weather -- but the warmed-up waters may be causing problems for the creatures, according to researchers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

Every year there are sea turtles that need rescuing along the Texas coast, especially right after a sudden temperature change, but lately researchers have noticed an uptick in the number of sea turtles needing aid. Last fall, they helped out more than 500 sea turtles, many of whom had gone into shock because of the sudden cold snaps causing water temperatures to drop.

Traditionally, sea turtles migrate to warmer waters as the seasons shift but in recent years the Gulf waters have stayed pretty comfortable for longer periods of time, and many turtles didn't bother to migrate, which would have been fine if the weather had stayed all comfortable and warm. But it didn't, of course, and neither did the waters off the Texas coast, and that didn't go so well for the sea turtles caught in the climate-chang crossfire, according to Tony Amos, a Marine Science Institute fellow and director of Animal Rehabilitation Keep. Plummeting temperatures translated to sea turtles slipping into shock and the risk that they would develop pneumonia or be killed from the cold.

At one point, so many cold-stunned sea turtles had been collected that the Marine Science Institute was completely packed with about 300 turtles, some of them hanging out four or more in one plastic kiddy pool. (Keep in mind the average sea turtle weighs about 120 pounds, so these were tight rehabilitative quarters.) Amos and his team kept the turtles - basically stowing them in every nook and cranny at UTMSI - until March when Gulf waters warmed enough to release the sea turtles back into the wild.

Still, things seemed to work out. Of the turtles brought in alive, about 93 percent were successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild, Amos says. That's a pretty decent success rate, but researchers say that the warmer waters could mean even more sea turtle troubles this winter. "We were not really expecting any of this until it started happening. The numbers are coming back and the more sea turtles we have the more vulnerable they are to certain things happening, like being caught in these sudden harsh winters," Amos says. "There's all kinds of trouble out there for sea turtles."

Including Fibropapillomatosis, a new-to-Texas-waters disease that Amos and his team have found on Texas sea turtles in recent months. Fibropapillomatosis is a herpes virus (yep, basically we're talking turtle herpes) that causes benign tumors to grow. The virus is usually found on sea turtles living in warmer waters in Florida and Hawaii, another sign, Amos says, that Gulf water temperatures may be increasing. Amos and his team released the treated sea turtles at Mustang Island Beach in Port Aransas on Saturday.

That's a far cry from how sea turtles were once viewed around these parts. Commercial fishermen still may not be wild about sea turtles, but decades ago most people in Texas and the United States looked at sea turtles as food and that was about it. In the 1800s there was a huge sea turtle industry along the Texas coast. There must have been thousands of sea turtles in the waters back then because millions of pounds of turtle meat was canned and sold over the decades, right up until the 1920s, Amos says. The Texas sea turtle canning business came to an abrupt halt at that point because hunters could only find about four or five sea turtles to can, and the turtle canning factories were shuttered.

Since then, the sea turtle population numbers have swelled, and people have changed how they approach the turtles. Amos likes to tell the story of how people noticed a man putting two sea turtles in the back of a pickup truck. A crowd of people got so angry the man was forced to put the turtles back. People like sea turtles now, and because they like them they try to help them, he says.

When the water temperatures start dropping and sea turtles need rescuing this year, Amos already knows he can count on the public to help collect the turtles. "We'll elicit the help of the public again this year. It's almost inevitable that they will help, because there aren't enough of us to pick up all those turtles," he says. "There's a certain something about sea turtles the public likes."

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