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In Apollo Beach, giving cold-stunned sea turtles a second chance at life

Ashley Riese and her team in Apollo Beach are working to bring two dozen sea turtles back to health.
Ashley Riese of the Florida Aquarium, who directs the sea turtle rescue, rehabilitation and release program, holds a green sea turtle at the aquarium's Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach.
Ashley Riese of the Florida Aquarium, who directs the sea turtle rescue, rehabilitation and release program, holds a green sea turtle at the aquarium's Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach. [ Florida Aquarium ]
Published May 26, 2021|Updated May 26, 2021

At the Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, Ashley Riese and her team are working to bring 24 sea turtles that were stunned by cold water back to health so they can be released.

In another aquarium project, Keri O’Neil, manager and senior scientist with the Coral Conservation Program, and her team were the first researchers to spawn Atlantic corals in the lab using artificial lighting and temperature cues. They’re using the lab corals to replace diseased and dying corals in the vital reef that stretches for 360 miles off Southeast Florida and the Keys.

Both talked with the Tampa Bay Times, and the conversations will be in two parts. Next week, O’Neil talks about her work.

This week, Riese, 34, manager of the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center, talks about saving the waterborne reptiles. Six of the seven sea turtle species are classified as endangered, according to the Oceanic Society.

How do turtles react when the water is too cold for them?

Basically it’s a hypothermic reaction that they have. ... They become lethargic. They can develop pneumonia. They just kind of float there at the surface and they drift into shore, drift to an area where somebody can see them. They get picked up and brought into rehabilitation.

How long does it take for turtles to recover from being stunned by cold water?

These guys we usually see for about two to four months. If they have bigger problems that we’re working with … sometimes it can go up to six months to a year. So it just really depends on what other medical issues that they have.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) decides when a sea turtle can be released, you say. How do you test the turtles to determine your recommendation to the FWC?

The deep dive system that we use for trials is one of a kind and you can use it to test for a couple of different things. You can put a turtle in there to test them to make sure they can get all the way down to the bottom and get back up safely, and it’s repeatable, they can keep doing that.

If we want to do a food trial in there we can toss in some live food and make sure they can get down to the bottom and they can hunt and they can forage for food and also still make it back up to the surface appropriately, too. So when they’re in there we have an ethogram sheet that has different behaviors that we’ll take a look at and we’ll monitor them. We have intervals of when we check them and we also have video footage, too, so we can collect really good data of what is actually going on to make an assessment if this animal is eligible for release.

What are other threats? Isn’t proliferation of plastic litter in the ocean a major problem?

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There’s a couple of different types of plastic. You get your micro-plastics that are super super tiny and they don’t even realize they’re ingesting it. It could be attached to a food source, something that it’s embedded in and they can ingest it that way. There’s bigger pieces of plastic that they can ingest that looks very similar to a food item that they might eat, like jellyfish. A plastic bag looks similar to a jellyfish.

We had one patient here that came in recently that did ingest little pieces of plastic. You hope that they pass it all out but in some cases we may have to go in and figure out (if) is there a blockage, through diagnostics, and what else we need to do for them. …

The fishery industry is a big one for these guys for accidental sea turtle catches. Poaching is a big one. People in other countries, they’re poaching them for their nests and their eggs, and are just catching them out in the wild and harvesting them for body parts and selling them to the trades.

Now we’re looking at climate change and how that could potentially start impacting them, too. Looking at the Northeast, the big cold-stunning event that happened this year – it’s the biggest cold-stunning event that they’ve had in the Northeast – and how is that going to impact the future of the species.

You look at the event that happened out in Texas, that massive cold-stunning event, that’s a lot of turtles that they took in this year. And a lot of turtles unfortunately didn’t make it during that event, so climate change very well could be a factor for these guys, too.

And habitat loss continues to be a problem.

There’s a lot of different ways to look at habitat loss. Beaches, there’s a lot more development happening on the beaches, so nesting females are having a more difficult time trying to find the right place. The beaches that they were coming to are no longer there or reduced.

Out in Bermuda is a really great example of habitat loss. … These turtles, for years, they go there, they grow up to about sub-adult age and then they get ready to leave. And they used to have a lot of seagrass beds (where they feed), and then two years ago when I went out there …. their habitat of seagrass beds are ... almost gone. And these turtles that we’re getting in for health assessments are now skinny, debilitated. They’re not fat and happy like they used to be.

Part of your mission is to educate the public?

The main way to keep these guys alive, I think, is to try to figure out how to build that connection and build that interest with the public and other individuals coming up, growing up, the younger generation, and teaching them that we do need to protect and restore these guys or there is a very good chance we could see... not just sea turtles but other species go extinct.

How does it feel to release a sea turtle?

The first turtle that I ever released, I was very fortunate to be able to work with her from the beginning. So I got to see her in her critical state. I worked with the team; we nursed her back to health. And to see her go from skinny to a nice body condition and then being able to release her, it’s a really good feeling to be able to see all that come together and how their health status improves, and how you had an impact on saving that animal’s life. …

And then they’re gone.

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