860 sea turtles rescued with more strandings expected

February 09, 2011

By Jim Hiney

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Members of the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists were among the volunteers who rescued about 860 Green sea turtles that had been stunned into comatose states by last weeks cold snap near Port Isabel and South Padre Island.

More so-called “cold stunned” turtles are expected all along the Texas coast in the next 24 hours as a result of the latest fast-moving cold front to hit the state.

The Rio Grande Chapter of the Texas Master naturalists is a group sponsored by Texas Sea Grant and led by Cameron County Coastal and Marine Resource Agent Tony Reisinger.

Of the 860 turtles rescued on Friday, Feb. 4, about 750 survived and were released the next day. The number of rescued turtles is an indicator that the Green turtle population is exploding in south Texas, says Reisinger.

According to figures from Sea Turtle Inc., volunteers rescued about 150 Green turtles during a cold snap in 2007. About 200 cold stunned turtles were rescued 2010.

Cold stunning occurs when low temperatures and high winds combine to quickly drop water temperatures in shallow water areas like the Lower Laguna Madre. Turtles are cold-blooded animals and rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature. A sudden drop in air and water temperature causes the animals’ body temperatures to plunge, sending them into a coma-like state.
“Cold stunned sea turtles act almost lifeless,” said Reisinger. “They can barely lift their heads, if at all, and they exhibit very slow respiration.”

Left unattended, many cold stunned animals die.

Reisinger said he mobilizes his volunteers in advance of predicted cold waves so they are ready to scan local beaches and tidal flats for cold stunned turtles. Many of the volunteers receive cold stunning response training from Jeff George, curator of Sea Turtle Inc., which is a South Padre Island based sea turtle rescue, conservation and public education organization.

“Rescuing cold stunned sea turtles is tough,” said Reisinger. “It’s brutally cold out and these volunteers have to wait until low tide and then wade out into the cold water and mud to retrieve these animals. Some of these turtles weigh more than 100 pounds and it can prove exhausting to the volunteers to get the turtles back onto shore and into vehicles.”

The turtles must be warmed up but the key is not to warm them too quickly, says Reisinger. Volunteers place the turtles into unheated vehicles and sometimes cover them with blankets for the ride to a rehabilitation facility. In far south Texas, most of these turtles are taken to Sea Turtle Inc. or The University of Texas-Pan American Coastal Studies lab, which is also located in South Padre Island. The large number of turtles rescued last week overtaxed local rehabilitation capacity, so some of the turtles were transported to facilities as far away as Corpus Christi, said Reisinger.

Sea Turtle Inc. is looking for volunteers to help rescue cold stunned turtles and to care for them during their rehabilitation. The organizations is also seeking donations of blankets. For more information, contact Jeff George at (956) 761-4511.

-30-

Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.