By Joshua Shilko for Island Connection
Each year, Seabrook Island plays host to nesting loggerhead sea turtles. Residents and visitors alike welcome the site of nests on the beach and relish the occasional chance to get a glimpse of this threatened species. However, a less desirable visit from our sea turtle friends seems to be on the rise – strandings. A stranded sea turtle is one that has come ashore, been brought ashore, or is floating near shore, whether alive or dead. Live stranded turtles tend to be weakened because of injury, disease, or by accidentally becoming the bycatch of fishing activities targeting other species. With more than two months remaining in the calendar year, Seabrook Island has had nine sea turtle strandings. Somewhat remarkably, these strandings have predominantly been Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, which are the most critically endangered sea turtle species in existence. There have also been strandings involving loggerhead turtles and a single green sea turtle on our beaches this year. While the cause of a stranding can not always be determined, four of our strandings this year were sea turtles that were caught by people fishing from shore, and three were the result of boat strikes. While turtles caught on hook and line generally have a good prognosis if they receive proper care, boat strikes frequently result in death.
Statewide, boat strikes and fishing bycatch are the leading causes of sea turtle mortality. While the causes for Seabrook Island strandings align with the most common causes of mortality, it’s noteworthy that the number of sea turtles caught on hook and line this year is the most recorded on Seabrook in the history of the stranding project and is currently the second highest in the state behind only Myrtle Beach. There are a number of possible explanations for the increased number of hook and line catches, including an increase in fishing activity on our beaches, a higher rate of reporting by those catching sea turtles, or a general increase in the number of turtles spending time in waters near our shoreline. The specific increase in Kemp’s Ridley catches may also indicate that our inshore waters are becoming a favored feeding ground for this species. Whatever the cause, it’s a trend we would prefer to reverse! The Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol provides the following tips based on SC DNR and NOAA guidance on how to boat and fish safely in waters that sea turtles call home. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to strandings on Seabrook Island. During the course of this year, we sent two live stranded sea turtles that had been caught on hook and line to the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium. Both turtles, named Pyrite and Aventurine, required surgery to remove large fishing hooks.
Pyrite, a Kemp’s Ridley which was the smallest sea turtle that the Sea Turtle Care Center has ever treated, has made a full recovery and was recently released back to the ocean in October. Aventurine, also a juvenile Kemp’s Ridley, required more extensive surgery and is continuing to recover at the Sea Turtle Care Center. You can visit Aventurine in the recovery center at the South Carolina aquarium. Most importantly, please call the DNR immediately at (800) 922-5431 if you catch a sea turtle or come across a stranded sea turtle. A licensed stranding responder will be dispatched to help. Additional resources can be found at siturtlepatrol.com/ education.
The data presented here should be considered preliminary in nature. All data and figures are copyright of the seaturtle.org project coordinators and may not be used or referenced without the explicit written consent of the data owners.