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    Help from humans can harm turtles

    Scientists warn that the endangered sea creatures should be left alone during their nesting and hatching.

    [Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
    Bobby, a 140-pound loggerhead sea turtle, crawls into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday morning after being released by staff from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where the creature was treated for a year after its rescue by a lifeguard at Clearwater Beach. About 150 people gathered to watch the release.

    By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 17, 2003


    Florida's turtles are in trouble, and local scientists hope you can help the endangered critters -- by leaving them alone.

    Sea turtle nesting season officially begins May 1, but those in the know say it has already started. Tiny turtles will soon begin to hatch on the beaches and crawl toward the ocean.

    No human help is required.

    Wildlife biologist Allen Foley's advice on saving them?

    "Stop hurting them," he said. "They're well equipped to deal with their environment but they have problems when on top of the natural situations, we add new situations. They're hit by boats, caught in nets, they're killed directly . . ."

    The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is doing its part to help ensure the survival of Florida's five turtle species -- all of whom are threatened by extinction. Its volunteers mark off and protect turtle nests. They also rehabilitate sick turtles and on Wednesday released two of them back into the wild.

    A crowd of nearly 150 gathered to watch the mid-morning release, clapping as the turtles flapped their flippers at the sight of the water.

    "It was just wonderful," said Jena Fritsch, who lives on Sand Key.

    Fritsch and her husband, Nick, try to watch the turtle hatchings and releases.

    "When you see the first one swim away, you think life begins again," Nick Fritsch said.

    The two female turtles, Bobby and Rory, probably won't mate this year, said Glenn Harman, a biologist with the aquarium. The 140-pound Bobby, found last year by Clearwater lifeguard Bob Baker, was weak with lethargic loggerhead syndrome, a disease that attacked hundreds of loggerheads two years ago.

    [Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
    The loggerhead turtle swims for the open water Wednesday after its release back into the gulf.

    Rory, who is 160 pounds, is an adult loggerhead found with a crab trap line twisted around her right rear flipper in April 2002. Her flipper later had to be amputated.

    Hooks, lines and boat collisions are the main causes of turtle deaths, according to scientists. Just Wednesday, two rare Kemp's Ridley turtles were brought to the aquarium for rehabilitation, one of them with a hook through its neck.

    The aquarium considers saving sick and injured animals one of its missions, but it's an uphill battle, Harman said.

    "In our area, nesting has always been very low because of the heavy amount of development and artificial lighting that goes along with that," Harman said. "There are problems with vehicles compacting the beach and creating ruts where the hatchlings can't get out."

    Four of Florida's turtles -- the green turtle, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp's Ridley -- are on the endangered species list. The fifth, the loggerhead, is a threatened species. Florida law prohibits interfering with sea turtles.

    The Florida Marine Research Institute worries that turtle populations are at an all-time low. In 2002, more than 1,250 turtles were killed by boats, gunshot, fish lines, nets and illness. It's the highest turtle death toll since 1980.

    No one knows for sure what role the turtles play in the ecosystem, but they have been around since the time of dinosaurs.

    Foley, who works for the marine institute, is exasperated with people who demand a justification for saving the reptiles.

    Said Foley: "The world is a lot more complex and interesting place because of sea turtles and there could be some argument that they have an inherent right to exist whether we think so or not."

    -- Adrienne P. Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com .

    To help, don't help

    How to help protect sea turtles during nesting season, which is May 1 to Aug. 31:

    The eggs hatch between July 1 and Oct. 31. It's illegal to touch or pick up a hatchling.

    After hatching, it is normal for turtle to move slowly. Don't try to help them.

    Do not use a flashlight, a camera with a flash or light a fire on the beach at night during nesting season.

    If you live on the beach, turn off all outside lights, draw your drapes closed at night and avoid using lamps on the beach.

    To report a sea turtle injury or sighting, call the Clearwater Marine Aquarium toll-free at 1-888-239-9414 ext. 224.

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