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Sea turtles raised for US research are set free in Indian River Lagoon

7:03 AM, Jun 25, 2013   |    comments
Overhead view of a Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), a marine reptile. Turtles must surface to breathe air. Turtles are omnivorous and will eat bottom dwelling invertebrates as well as organisms such as jellyfish, or Portuguese Men of War (Physalia physalis), such as this one, floating on the ocean's surface.
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These reptiles can really draw a crowd.

More than 100 people got up early Monday morning to see 28 threatened loggerhead sea turtles set free just south of Sebastian Inlet.

Parents held up their children and their smartphones to catch a glimpse as federal biologists and volunteers released the turtles into the Indian River Lagoon.

The turtles had been used in research trials in Panama City, where biologists watched them swim through various nets to learn how best to design special escape hatches that enable turtles to slip free from fishing nets.

Marine biologists want to make fishing nets more efficient at catching fish and shrimp without also capturing turtles.

Shrimp nets are one of the leading causes of sea turtle deaths. The turtles drown in the nets when they can't escape and reach the surface for air.

About 20 years ago, it took three or four minutes for a sea turtle to slip out of fishing nets, said Ben Higgins, a sea turtle researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through research into net design, that escape time has dropped to 14 seconds, Higgins said.

"The turtles are getting out of the nets so fast now it's hard to keep up with them," Higgins told the crowd that had gathered at Inlet Marine before heading down State Road A1A to the release site.

Higgins had driven the turtles nine hours from Panama City in a Budget rental truck.

These turtles were dug up at Melbourne Beach three years ago as eggs, then raised at NOAA's Galveston, Texas, research laboratory. From there, the turtles were taken to Panama City for the net experiments.

NOAA requires fishermen to put a $250 to $500 "Turtle Excluder Device" on their nets. The device is a grid of bars with an opening at the top or bottom of the net. The grid is fitted into the neck of a shrimp trawl.

Small animals such as shrimp pass through the bars and are caught in the bag end of the trawl. When sea turtles and other larger animals enter the trawl they hit the grid bars and get ejected through the opening.

Scientists also had taken tiny tissue samples from these turtles' flippers to study how sea turtle cells react to certain marine pollutants. Among other things, they want to know how sea turtle are impacted by oil spills and dispersants, such as those used in the BP oil spill in 2010.

Biologists don't anticipate any ill effects to the turtles from the recent brown tide algae bloom in the lagoon.

Loggerheads, a federally threatened species, are among the most plentiful of the five types of sea turtles that nest in Florida. One in 1,000 hatchlings reaches adulthood.

Early Monday, children and their parents waded knee deep in the lagoon, carrying one turtle at a time in plastic bins. The turtles dashed out of the tipped crates.

"I love sea turtles," Christina Wilberg, a marine science teacher at Heritage High School in Palm Bay, said as Higgins held up a flipper-flapping turtle in the back of the truck. "As soon as you put them in the water, they just kind of take off."

The turtle twisted, mouth agape, ostensibly yearning for the sea.

"You definitely don't want to put your finger in there," Wilberg said.

The young turtles were released into the lagoon to give them time to get in better swimming shape before venturing out into the more perilous ocean.

The turtles will likely find Sebastian Inlet and exit into the ocean.

"I don't know how they do it, but they do," Higgins said.

FLORIDA TODAY

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