SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (Reuters) - We went fly fishing for mackerel but wound up with a sea turtle.
I had come to this sandy island on the southeast coast of Texas to do environment stories, including one on efforts led by a largely volunteer organisation to protect sea turtles.
The group, Sea Turtles Inc., focuses on protecting the nests and hatchlings of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle but also rescues other stranded or injured turtles.
Sea Turtle’s president, Shane Wilson, shares my passion for salt water fly fishing so we went to the pier on the south side of the island just after dawn to try our luck.
We saw a small Atlantic green turtle in obvious distress.
“This is not good,” Wilson said as we watched the animal struggle to get its head above water to breathe. It seemed to be almost stationary, apparently caught on something.
We tried to use my fly rod to hook the fishing line entangling the creature and pull it in, but that didn’t work.
Wilson swam the 5 yards (metres) to the animal, grabbed the fishing line it was caught on and hauled it in.
The incident drove home how the careless use of fishing line — this would have been discarded by anglers using a rod and reel — can inflict serious damage on wildlife.
On a far larger scale turtle populations around the world are getting hammered by commercial long-line and netting operations, which often discard their carcasses as “by-catch”.
For Wilson, a local school administrator, it was a special moment: the first time he had personally rescued a sea turtle.
I also have a special fondness for turtles.
I have observed loggerhead and massive leatherback turtles nesting on the east coast of South Africa at night and have spotted turtles while diving and snorkeling in a number of places including off the coast of Madagascar.
Watching them dig a hole in the sand and deposit their eggs is one of nature’s great spectacles.
But it was my first involvement in a turtle rescue. Knowing my enthusiasm for hunting and fishing, a colleague quipped it was the least I could do given the wildlife I have killed.
Our rescued turtle had some scars from its ordeal and we took it to Sea Turtle’s facility. I held the animal out in front of me as it dog paddled in the air, as Wilson drove.
The center’s curator, Jeff George, weighed the animal — 8-1/2 lbs (four kg) — and gave it some mild antibiotic.
“There’s no room in the inn so we’ll put him in the stable,” George joked as an assistant filled a basin with water. Flatteringly, the centre staff named the little turtle Ed.
Some 20 sea turtles of various species, ages and sizes were being cared for at the center. Some had lost more than one flipper to predators or fishermen, meaning they could not be released into the wild.
The little fellow that Wilson rescued should be ready to be released back into the sea in about three weeks.
The center’s main focus is preserving turtle eggs during the laying season for the Kemp’s ridley from April to July, when volunteers scour the beach in search of nests.
When a turtle’s tracks are seen in the sand, the nest is located and the eggs are delicately removed to a holding pen for incubation. When they hatch the little ones are shepherded into the sea to protect them from birds and other predators.
The Kemp’s ridley, which nests only on the coast of southeast Texas and east Mexico, was on the verge of extinction a couple of decades ago with only about 300 females left.
There are now about 11,000 which make some 15,000 nests a year — the animals make multiple nests in alternating years — making them a rare marine conservation success story.
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