Red tide takes toll on turtles

Published September 23, 2005

FORT DE SOTO - After a solid month of cleaning up dead fish, Jim Wilson needed a little good news.

"That's what we are looking for," Wilson said as he uncovered a baby loggerhead sea turtle in the sand. "If we weren't here, this little fellow would have never made it out."

Sea turtle nest No. 16, one of two the same female loggerhead dug this summer, had 105 eggs. Three days earlier, under the light of a nearly full moon, 67 eggs hatched and the newborn turtles rushed to the water.

"We call that a jail break," Wilson said. "The whole pack of turtles head for the water at once."

Three days later, Wilson, the chief ranger at this Pinellas County park, returned to the nest to see if any baby turtles were still trapped inside.

"This nest got flooded during the high water of Hurricane Katrina," he said. "That is why some of the eggs at the bottom of the nest didn't make it."

Wilson found four live turtles hidden among the broken eggs. He placed them in a 5-gallon bucket to release that night. But minutes later he received a call on the radio that a dead loggerhead had washed up on the beach near a fishing pier.

"I hate to see this," Wilson said. "This animal could be 60 or 70 years old."

Wilson's supervisor, Bob Browning, measured the turtle, one of more than a hundred that have been found dead on local beaches since a lingering Red Tide flared up in late July.

"This has been a bad year," Browning said. "One of the worst that that I can remember."

According to Allen Foley, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Jacksonville field laboratory, 138 sea turtles have been stranded on local beaches since July 24.

"That is more than we usually have in a year," Foley said. "It looks like the cause is Red Tide."

Foley said 118 of the turtles were found dead. The survivors were transported to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota or the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

"It could be 50 years before we know what affect this Red Tide outbreak will have on the overall turtle population," said Dr. Charles Manire , animal care manager for the dolphin and whale hospital. "We are probably only seeing 10 to 20 percent of what is actually dying, so the actual number of dead turtles could be in the thousands.

"With a population that is limited, the affect of the Red Tide could be catastrophic. Only time will tell."

Dr. Janine Cianciolo of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has five turtles in her care.

"Some of them have not responded well at all," she said. "Many of the turtles that come in here are so neurologically damaged that they had not chance for survival."

Like Mote's Manire, Cianciolo thinks the organism Karenia brevis is to blame for the rash of turtle deaths.

"Every animal that comes in here gets a blood test. It receives the same quaility of medical care you would get if you went to a hospital," she said. "We have looked at a lot of possible causes ... but it all points to the Red Tide."

A week after her initial interview, Cianciolo was optimistic. The five turtles under her care had improved greatly.

"They are all swimming on their own now," she said. "Four out of the five are eating as well. I think the treatment must be working."

Wilson also was hopeful.

"The estimates vary on how many turtles will return to the beach to nest," he said. "It ranges from one out of a hundred to one out of a thousand. I'm an optimist, so I like to think it is one out of a hundred."

With that, Wilson released the hatchlings on the beach and they scurried toward the surf, four more trying to beat the odds.

Red Tide Facts

Red tide is a microscopic algae (plant-like organism) in Florida called Karenia brevis or K. brevis. It produces a toxin that can kill fish and cause respiratory problems in humans. Red tide can last days, weeks or months, and can change daily.


REPORT FISH KILLS: 1-800-636-0511

RED TIDE INFORMATION: www.floridamarine.org or www.redtideonline.com