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STAR Network Keeps Eye on Turtles

While this article was originally posted in the V.I. Source, we here at thought it was worth sharing.  Enjoy the stories, take in the information and tips provided, and please respect the turtles! If you are interested in assisting with the STAR Network, please contact them at (340) 690-0474 or visit their Facebook page. 

Not for Profit: STAR Network Keeps Eye on Turtles

Let’s say you are a hawksbill turtle in distress. A boat propeller has injured your flipper and you are stranded on shore. That given, you are in fortunate circumstances in the Virgin Islands. Chances are good someone will see you on the beach, and chances are even better that the person will know what to do.

The territory is especially sensitive to these native reptiles, largely due to the efforts of the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue network – known by its acronym STAR.

The community at large expresses a protective attitude toward sea life, especially turtles, so much a part of our native environment.

STAR comprises a group of non-government organizations and federal and local government entities, including the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources – Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the worldwide Nature Conservancy. WIMARCS will also support projects in Puerto Rico, Vieques, and the British Virgin Islands.

Coral World vet tech Erica Palmer is on the STAR St. Thomas staff. She is the onsite person in charge of medical care for all the animals at Coral World.  “We basically do an onsite medical rehabilitation program with turtles, as well as other marine animals. We nurse them back to health,” Palmer said.  “Roy Pemberton, the director of DPNR Fish and Wildlife division, and I cover St. Thomas for STAR,” Palmer said.

Her charges range the gamut, from weeks’ old hatchlings to larger animals who have suffered injuries.  A few weeks ago, Palmer inherited a few weeks’ old hatchling who became sort of famous in a book written by a five-year-old when Portia Miles, who found the tiny turtle at Bluebeard’s beach, where it was then brought to Coral World’s care. The little girl named the turtle Shelley and wrote a little story about it.

“We took Shelly and another hatching eight miles out to sea and let them go where they can eat tiny jelly fish and shrimp away from their natural predators near the shore,” Palmer said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Palmer released a full-grown sea turtle in early December at Cowpet Bay, where he had been found April 20th.

“A local resident found him on the beach, bleeding from his shell,” she said. “I went to Cowpet along with representatives from DPNR. It looked like he had been shot by a spear gun from the top of its shoulder. We took him back to Coral World and the next day we took him to Imperial Animal Hospital where an X-ray found broken bones and a punctured lung. He was in very poor condition. He would have drowned in the water,” she said.

“Next, we took him to St. Thomas Radiology for a CT scan, which confirmed the diagnosis.”  When asked what the radiology lab thought about examining a full-size turtle, Palmer said, “Oh, they were wonderful. They always help us whenever we need them. They are amazing people, doctors Rosenberg and Guller and their staff. Anytime we have an issue, it’s never a problem, and they never charge.”

She said the turtle had to be on medication for months.  “It’s a very slow process. Usually it takes from six months to a year for the hole in the shell to completely heal, and we have to be sure all his organs are functioning properly,” Palmer said. “One of the really nice things about Coral World is that being right on the ocean,” she said, “we can collect natural food items like sea sponges.”

The odds for turtle maturity are astronomical. The chances of surviving to adulthood are seven in 10,000.

STAR coordinator Claudia Lombard, National Wildlife Refuge biologist on St. Croix, spoke of the island’s turtle population, including a remarkable homing turtle.

The most famous of the island’s 52 beaches is Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, home to significant research. Lombard spotted the leatherback turtle AAG332 in 1981, 31 years ago. The turtle returned again to Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge on St. Croix to lay her eggs last year.  “Other projects studying nesting leatherbacks are maybe 19 years,” Lombard said, “but none come close to 31 years.”

Every leatherback that nests at the refuge receives a flipper tag with a unique number so that scientists can track individual turtles through time as well as assess the population statistics.

It is always nesting season on the island for one of the local turtle species – which include hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles.  Lombard said with the island’s 52 beaches, turtle researchers are kept busy.  “We have a lot more calls for assistance. Each year, we get about 30 or 40 calls. People report nestings, hatchlings or injured turtles. We have had a number of reports of poaching, killing the animals for meat and eggs, or attacks by feral dogs.” She provided a list of things people can do to protect the endangered turtles:

  • If you encounter a dead sea turtle or a live, debilitated turtle please call STAR at (340) 690-0474;
  • Report any suspicious or criminal activities related to sea turtles to STAR or the V.I. Police Department at 911;
  • Operate boats at safe and responsible speeds;
  • Always keep dogs on a leash when on a beach;
  • Keep beaches clean by disposing of trash properly;
  • Turn off lights close to beaches to avoid disorientating nesting sea turtles and hatchlings; and,
  • If you encounter a nesting sea turtle, keep your distance, turn off all lights, and do not disturb.
small_STAR-numberPenalties are serious for the harassing, harming, capturing or collecting of sea turtles or their eggs. All sea turtles are designated as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Editor’s Note: The STAR Network needs equipment, materials and supplies to continue their valuable work. Your tax-deductible contribution can be provided to STAR by mail to: WIMARCS, 202 Prosperity, Frederiksted, VI 00840.

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