Reptile rift raises concern for sea turtles in Pinellas

The only person licensed to keep tabs on sea turtles was fired by an aquarium.

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. -- You could say it is bad timing for locally nesting turtles, and right at the peak of nesting season.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the biologist in charge of its turtle nesting program have suddenly split up, and that's got some people worried about whether hundreds of the reptiles and their eggs are getting the protection they need.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is clearly committed to the welfare of Florida's turtles, but a few weeks ago they had a reptile rift with their only biologist licensed to oversee the marking and monitoring of turtle nests along more than 20 miles of Pinellas County's beaches. 

Former co-workers taking part in a turtle release in Tarpon Springs Tuesday couldn't say why biologist Laura Wright was let go.

Still, Pinellas County had a $135,000 contract with the aquarium, paying them to record nest locations and mark them for protection.

Without Wright on staff, CMA can't do that work, but it still has other turtle tasks. 

“Lighting surveys on the beach, and escarpment surveys, which is very high points of the sand where it makes it very difficult for turtles to come up onto the beach and nest. We're still responsible for that stuff under contract,” said CMA sea turtle biologist Sierra Petrone.

Pinellas County says in the meantime, though, it appears Wright continues to work on her own.

In fact, a worker on Indian Rocks Beach said he saw Wright on an ATV at about 8:30 Tuesday morning still looking for turtle nests, Still marking them. Still collecting and sharing that important data with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

There's concern, though, about how long Wright will be able to keep up the work without the financial resources of the aquarium, and what could happen on busy beachgoer weekends without those warning signs and proper monitoring. 

Sue Mulcahy, who watched Tuesday’s turtle release, worried that beach visitors might accidentally "put their umbrella sticks in there. Crack the eggs. Or put their chairs on there. Or heavy containers.”

And when it comes to accurately keeping track of species and nest numbers, “If someone doesn't keep up with it, they’re not gonna have any idea,” said beach visitor Billy Eidson.

Wright's friends and fans have started a GoFundMe page to help offset the expense of patrolling and marking the beaches. As of Tuesday afternoon, it has raised more than $1,000.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium, meanwhile, has expressed interest in getting someone else permitted. But for now, FWC says the local license and the responsibility that comes with it belong to Wright.

Pinellas County says it is no longer paying the aquarium for the portion of the contract that dealt with identifying and monitoring sea turtles nests along its beaches. 

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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