- Associated Press - Sunday, November 11, 2018

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - Imagine swallowing a hook with a large weight attached to it.

Imagine spending months with that hook inside you while you try to carry on with your life.

That happens to sea turtles on a regular basis when they take a fisherman’s bait.

Lucky for them, there is someone here to help.

Located on the industrial Canal in Gulfport, the Institute For Marine Mammal Studies has been a leading force in helping save the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

Since the 2010 BP oil spill, they have rescued over 1,000 of the turtles, returning 98 percent of them to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ironically, those turtles that have been caught by accident help keep local fishing piers open while contributing to the study of the species.

Co-operation of local fishermen is critical to their success.

Federal law limits the number of protected sea turtles that can be caught off of any given pier. When IMMS is able to rehabilitate and return an accidentally caught turtle, it takes that catch off the pier’s list, allowing it to stay open.

Signs posted on piers give instructions and a hotline number to call if you accidentally catch a sea turtle.

If a member of the IMMS staff isn’t available, local fire departments are trained to collect the animals and keep them until they can be treated at the IMMS veterinary hospital.

Getting animals that are fairly healthy allows them to learn about their biology and behavior, said Mysteria Samuelson, behavior ecologist and stranding coordinator for IMMS.

“That helps formulate a practical plan for the conservation of the species,” she said.

Debra Moore, a veterinarian from Mississippi State University, has worked with IMMS for the last year in a five-year project funded by money from the BP oil spill settlement. The $6.5 million grant pays for work to help both stranded dolphins and turtles. The money is awarded through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

Moore said they have gathered information from 629 healthy Kemp’s ridley turtles that, for the first time, has given scientists a baseline of knowledge.

“We (now) know what normal looks like,” she said.

“Every time we get an opportunity to do all the diagnostic work with these guys, we’re learning more and more about them.”

Still their work is “in its first stages”

“Prior to the oil spill there was very little knowledge on what made these animals tick,” said Moby Solangi, director of IMMS. “Until we started this work, nobody thought the Mississippi Sound was a critical habitat.”

They now know that after turtles that survive after being born on a beach in Mexico spend their juvenile years in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Knowledge about species like the Kemp’s ridley gives scientists an insight into the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico. Study of the gulf has greatly increased since the oil spill, but much is still not known.

Recovery of the species is very integral to maintaining a healthy ecosystem, said stranding technician Erin Mattson.

“We’re trying to make sure that we give them the best chance for survival.”

Typically, when a fisherman calls the stranding hotline, a team from IMMS will come collect the animal. They will examine it, including blood samples and x-rays. They will remove any hooks or other foreign objects and devise a rehabilitation plan.

Turtles may stay anywhere from a month to a year before they are healthy enough to return to the Gulf.

Public education is a big part of their program, so they like to invite the public whenever they release turtles.

On Nov. 3, about 300 people watched as eight of the turtles were released in Pass Christian.

Children, adults and the IMMS staff reveled in the event.

“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always wanted to work with sea turtles,” said Erin Fitzpatrick-Wacker, a veterinary technician for IMMS. It is “extremely rewarding” to take care of a sick Kemp’s ridley and then release them.

“Just seeing that turtle get really excited when you put them back in the ocean is super rewarding,” she said. “I love being a part of that.”

___

Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com


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