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Turtles In Trouble

By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News

Photos by Barbara Bergwerf

Mary Pringle, Sullivan’s Island Beach Services Officer Walter Sherrill, and Sullivan’s Island Animal Control Officer Tom McLellan prepare the debilitated loggerhead for transport to the SC Aquarium.

In the last part of June there were three incidents that were troubling for the Turtle Team.

First on June 21 we received a call from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) that someone had dug into Nest #7 laid on May 19 at 43rd Ave. There was concern that the eggs had been damaged.

When we went to investigate, we found a hole about 6-8 inches deep dug by a shovel inside the marked off triangle and right over the egg chamber. The turtle had buried the eggs about two feet deep and the top egg was probably about 12 inches down, so no damage was done.

Nest #7 at 43rd Avenue after it was vandalized.

The penalty for taking, killing or damaging a loggerhead egg, hatchling or adult can be $1,000 per turtle or egg. According to Michelle Pate, State Coordinator for the Marine Turtle Program under SCDNR, a person can also be fined $25,000 under the Endangered Species Act.

Rescue workers carried turtle by body board and sling due to
its extremely fragile condition.

The person who reported this incident was able to write down the Georgia license plate number on the car of the family who were seen digging into the nest. SCDNR is investigating the incident at this time.

Then the next day Sullivan’s Island Animal Control Officer, Tom McLellan called to say that a turtle was washing up in the surf near Station 18. When we arrived, we saw that this was a juvenile loggerhead who was severely emaciated and lethargic. Because of its fragile condition we had to use a body board and sling to carry it to the car for transport to the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center. It was suffering from a chronic condition known as Debilitated Turtle Syndrome or DTS. This is a serious degenerative state in which a turtle stops eating and begins to float instead of swimming and feeding. It is also characterized by multiple infections. A normally healthy condition will downward spiral as organ systems begin to shut down.

According to Willow Melamet, Manager for the Aquarium’s hospital, of the two-dozen turtles admitted this season, nine were suffering from DTS. Even more have suffered boat strike wounds or been caught on fish hooks this year, but in the past DTS has been seen frequently. Scientists are studying possible causes of this condition and one theory is that it could be related to pollutants in the ocean. Our turtle was still alive when we started the trip to the Aquarium but by the time we got her downtown, she had died. A necropsy was done soon afterwards and according to Michelle Pate, “nothing inflammatory was found to explain the cataracts that were in both eyes, but the eyes were sent to Dr. Brian Stacey for further analysis.” If these cases are caught in time, they can be saved with antibiotics, fluids and supportive care. But this time it was too late.

The final incident was that the landing net for hooked sea turtles was stolen from the Sea Cabins Pier at 14th Avenue. In the last few years recreational fishermen on piers all along the SC coast have been hooking the small, very endangered Kemps Ridley sea turtles who are about 12 to 20 inches in shell length. For this reason we had installed a DNR supplied sign with instructions to leave a foot or two of line when it is cut and a phone number to call so that we can respond quickly and transport hooked turtles to the Aquarium. The landing net was put there to prevent people from pulling the turtle up to the pier by the hook and doing more damage to it. The people fishing on the pier and the Sea Cabins security guard said that a man and a boy had been seen taking the landing net off the pier and it is now missing. We are working on getting a replacement net.

We keep hearing stories that someone hooked a turtle on this pier. When I ask what they did, I am told that they just ripped the hook out or cut the line and left the hook in before throwing it back. This might condemn the turtle to a slow and painful death from infection or starvation from not being able to eat. If people would only read the sign and call the number, we could easily take these turtles for proper medical care. Good examples of this are three Kemps Ridley turtles named Chum, Ucee and Violet from Horry County who were all admitted in June with fish hook signs and landing nets on public piers in the Myrtle Beach area, and these turtles are receiving needed care.

Our sea turtles have so many difficulties to overcome with lights disorienting them as hatchlings, boats hitting them with propellers and loss of nesting habitat to erosion, it is indeed sad to see even more problems affecting their survival caused by people.

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