Sea turtles killed: Lancha gillnet is suspected in dozens of deaths - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Sea turtles killed: Lancha gillnet is suspected in dozens of deaths

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Posted: Tuesday, November 26, 2019 12:34 am

More than 60 young green sea turtles have been found dead over four days beginning Nov. 20, most of them on Boca Chica Beach though a few on South Padre Island.

The dead turtles likely were between 2 and 6 years old, according to Jeff George, executive director of Sea Turtle Inc., who said 18 freshly dead turtles were found Nov. 24 alone, for a total of 63 so far. Radio reports and social media posts from Mexico, meanwhile, indicate that many more were found washed up south of the Rio Grande, he said.

George believes the event that caused the turtles’ deaths has concluded. Federal and state authorities were notified immediately, he said. Late Sunday, a patrol from the U.S. Coast Guard SPI station discovered an abandoned gillnet — from a Mexican lancha fishing U.S. waters illegally — 200 yards north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, according to a USCG official.

Of eight turtles found entangled in the net, five were dead, according to the official, who said USCG is conducting daily patrols in the area since the discovery. George said the gillnet is the suspected cause of the turtles’ deaths though it has yet to be confirmed.

Some commenters on Sea Turtle Inc.’s Facebook page blamed SpaceX, which experienced a pressurization failure with its Mk1 Starship prototype on Nov. 20, the same day the first dead turtles were found. That incident, which resulted in the release of a large quantity of vapor and cryogenic liquid, was not likely to have caused the turtle deaths, George said.

“That was on land,” he said. “I don’t think it had any impact on the beach.”

George said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has jurisdiction over sea turtles in the Gulf, is sending its top NOAA Fisheries veterinarian/sea turtle pathologist, Dr. Brian Stacy, to perform necropsies on the turtles to confirm cause of death. Stacy has necropsied thousands of sea turtles, George said.

“He is the definitive sea turtle veterinarian for the U.S. government,” he said.

However, because of Thanksgiving the necropsies might not be performed until next week, George said, noting that the turtles have been frozen to preserve the evidence. The necropsies can reveal causes of death related to chemicals, explosions, drowning (in a gillnet for instance) and other factors, he said.

“Given that the animal is fresh dead and frozen immediately, they’ll get a very good indicator as to what happened,” George said.

He said a gillnet was the suspected culprit when 15 dead turtles washed up at Boca Chica and nearby beaches in December 2016, though it was never confirmed. Green sea turtles are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

George said the latest spate of deaths comes, ironically, on the heels of a celebratory Nov. 19 release of 16 turtles that were rescued after becoming cold stunned when near-freezing temperatures swept South Texas earlier this month.

“And now to deal with 63 dead ones in the same time frame a week later — we have our ups downs,” he said. “It’s still a never-ending battle.”

Anyone who finds a sea turtle (dead or alive) on local beaches should call Sea Turtle Inc. at (956) 761-4511. Illegal activities involving sea turtles should be reported to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife at (800) 792-1112.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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