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Endangered green turtles find safe harbour in Panhandle Bay


Tampa Bay Online

29th May 2004

Young green turtles in St. Joseph Bay are helping researchers learn more about the rare reptiles.
Hundreds of the juveniles, ages 5 to 15, spend March through November here, munching on seagrass.

They have been appearing in larger numbers during the past three or four years, possibly because grass beds elsewhere along the Florida Panhandle's coast are being pushed out by development.

Erin McMichael, a University of Florida graduate student, and Ray Carty of the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit knew turtles were in the area but had no idea of their number until winter 2001 when about 400 of the animals were stunned by a cold snap.

It was one of the largest such occurrences recorded in the United States, McMichael says.

“They suffered hypothermia,” she added.

“They lose their ability to dive and float. Wind or currents washed some of them ashore.”

Most of the animals recovered.

Since then, the researchers have gotten permits to catch, tag and, in some cases, connect transmitters to the turtles.

That might help them learn more about the animals, including their annual and lifetime travels.

What is known:

The young spend their first years riding the currents on seaweed mats where they eat small animals and fish eggs.

Once they reach the juvenile stage, “they're strictly vegetarian. They're the only species of sea turtle that strictly eats grass or algae” from that age on, McMichael said.

This group of juveniles spends much of the year near the Panhandle's grass beds and warm water.

It is believed they go farther south the rest of the year.

“We're still trying to learn a lot about them,” McMichael said.

Although green turtles feed in other areas, the grass beds in St. Joseph Bay are among the best because they have not been affected by pollution and development, she said.

McMichael fears the pollution and development could come as boating activities and other forms of growth increase in and along the bay.

The turtles also face threats of being hit by boats and other fishing-related injuries, including problems with discarded nets.

Adult green turtles, which reach 200 pounds, nest on sandy beaches throughout Florida, “but they're more concentrated from Brevard through” Miami-Dade counties on the Atlantic coast, said Allen Foley, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The species is classified as endangered here and threatened throughout much of the Caribbean, in large part because it has not recovered from widespread slaughter for meat, leather and shells through the first half of the 20th century, including off north Pinellas County, Foley said.

“The number of nests seems to have been increasing over the last 30 years,” which leads to speculation their overall number also is increasing, he said.

There is no estimate of the population.

Reporter Jim Tunstall can be reached at (352) 628-5558.