Indian River, FL (Florida Today) -- These reptilians can really draw a crowd.
More than 100 people showed up to set free 28 threatened loggerhead sea turtles Monday, just south of Sebastian Inlet.
held up their children and their smart phones to catch a glimpse as
federal biologists and volunteers released the turtles into the Indian
River Lagoon, a few miles south of the inlet.
had been used in research trials in Panama City, where biologists watch
them swim through various nests to learn how best to design special
escape hatches for fishing nets that enable turtles to slip free.
Marine biologists want to make fishing nets more efficient at catching fish and shrimp without also capturing turtles.
nets are one of the main causes of sea turtle deaths. The turtles drown
in the nets when they can't escape and reach the surface for air.
20 years ago, it took three or four minutes for a sea turtle to slip
out of fishing nets, said Ben Higgins, a sea turtle researcher with the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through research into
net design, that has improved to 14 seconds for a turtle to escape,
"The turtles are getting out of the nests so
fast now it's hard to keep up with them," Higgins told the crowd that
had gathered at Inlet Marine before caravaning down State Road A1A to
the release site.
Higgins had driven the turtles nine hours from Panama City in a Budget rental truck.
turtles were dug up at Melbourne Beach three years ago as eggs then
raised at NOAA's Galveston, Texas, research laboratory. From there, the
turtles were taken to Panama City for the net experiments.
research purposes, most of the turtles only pass through a net once.
Biologists want to know how turtles that have never been exposed to a
net before react to being caught. The researchers use juvenile turtles
because those have the most trouble escaping fishing nets. The
3-year-old turtles weigh 20 to 30 pounds.
fishermen to put a $250 to $500 "Turtle Excluder Device" on their nets.
The device is a grid of bars with an opening at the top or bottom of the
net. The grid is fitted into the neck of a shrimp trawl.
Small animals such as shrimp pass through the bars and are caught in
the bag end of the trawl. When sea turtles and other larger animals
enter the trawl they hit the grid bars and get ejected through the
Scientists also had taken tiny tissue samples from
these turtles' flippers to study how sea turtle cells react to certain
marine pollutants. Among other things, they want to know how sea turtle
are impacted by oil spills and dispersants, such as those used in the BP
oil spill in 2010.
Biologists don't anticipate any ill
effects to the turtles from the recent brown tide algae bloom in the
lagoon and haven't seen an increase in the rate of turtles dying or
"We have no evidence of elevated
strandings," said Meghan Koperski, an environmental specialist with
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
a federally threatened species, are among the most plentiful of the
five types of sea turtles that nest in Florida.
at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge has one of the highest density
of sea turtle nests in the world, biologists say. Globally, however,
loggerheads have struggled in recent years against long-lasting red
tides, dune destruction from coastal development and a mysterious and
often fatal disease that makes them anemic, malnourished and sluggish.
Only one in 1,000 hatchlings lives to adulthood.
and their parents waded knee deep in the lagoon, carrying one turtle at
a time in plastic bins. The turtles dashed out of the tipped crates,
wasting no time as they headed for open water.
"I love sea
turtles," Christina Wilberg, a marine science teacher at Heritage High
School in Palm Bay, said as Higgins held up a flipper-flapping turtle in
the back of the Budget rental truck. "As soon as you put them in the
water, they just kind of take off."
The turtle twisted, mouth agape, ostensibly yearning for the sea.
"You definitely don't want to put your finger in there," Wilberg said.
released them into the lagoon to give the young turtles time to get in
better swimming shape before venturing out into the more perilous ocean.
in captivity, biologists handle the turtles as little as possible to
prevent them from associating humans with food and comfort.
The NOAA scientists release turtles at the same spot each year.
year, Higgins released the 37 turtles without the usual help from
volunteers, who may have assumed the early-morning release was canceled
due to bad weather.
No spectators came to last year's release as Tropical Storm Debby's outer bands sent showers over the region.