If you’ve been to a Georgia or Florida beach in recent years, you’ve likely seen the signs to leave sea turtles alone. Granted, you may not have seen the nighttime migration of the sea turtle, but the signs underscore the very reason why such sightings are rare.
Dr. Terry Norton, a veterinarian who directs the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, has dedicated his career to ensuring sea turtles have safe passage along the state’s beaches and that, hopefully, sightings of sea turtles will one day outnumber the signs.
On Tuesday, Norton will visit Valdosta as the featured speaker in Valdosta State University Biology Department’s 31st Annual Clyde Eugene Connell Visiting Lecturer Program. Through a PowerPoint presentation, Norton will discuss his and the center’s work, says Dr. Matthew Waters, an assistant VSU professor of biology.
David L. Bechler with VSU’s biology department says Georgia has taken several steps to protect various types of turtles.
“Georgia has the following turtles listed as endangered (E) or threatened (T) meaning that populations are in peril or of questionable status,” Bechler says. “They are:
• (T) Sea turtle, green (except where endangered) (Chelonia mydas)
• (E) Sea turtle, hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
• (E) Sea turtle, Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii)
• (E) Sea turtle, leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
• (T) Sea turtle, loggerhead (Caretta caretta)
“Efforts are in part successful in that the state, private programs and volunteers are taking actions to ensure varying levels of reproductive success in some areas.”
These efforts include:
• Limited access to some barrier islands where breeding is taking place either due to access only by boat traffic or actual restrictions to the beaches.
• Collection of laid eggs with hatching taking place under controlled conditions.
Factors that are resulting in the demise of turtles are as follows:
• Natural predation on new hatchlings.
• Injury by boats in open waters.
• Entrapment in waste dumped off ships or washed out to sea. Plastic waste can be a real problem as turtles get caught in it and die, and leatherbacks which feed on jellyfish and at times mistake plastic for jellyfish, eat it and die.
• Entrapment in gillnets used for commercial fishing — not that common along the Georgia coast.
• Consumption by humans, most common in third world counties except for southern areas of Japan where cultural practices involve capture and eating of turtles.
• Disruptions of nest by vehicles driving on beaches.
• City lighting which is believed to disorient new hatchlings so they move away from the oceans where they should be migrating to after hatching.
Throughout his career, Terry Norton has been interested in free-ranging wildlife. Working on Georgia’s St. Catherines Island, Norton developed the Georgia Wildlife Health Program, which focuses on the health of reptiles and birds.
“In 2000, we partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Field Veterinary Program on a global sea turtle health assessment project,” Norton notes. “Dr. Sharon Deem was conducting health-related work on sea turtles in Gabon, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and in the Congo. Georgia was added as the North American site because of the relationship WCS had with St. Catherines Island. The work in Georgia included establishing baseline health parameters for several of the life stages of the loggerhead sea turtle. In addition to evaluating healthy turtles, we started to be called upon to do the initial evaluation of stranded sea turtles found on the Georgia coast. Through this work, it became apparent that a sea turtle rehabilitation center was needed in coastal Georgia.”
Originally, St. Catherines was the planned site for the center. Norton developed the popular Turtle Crawl to raise awareness and funds for the center. In time, he realized that the center needed another site to get the public more involved in the project. That site became Jekyll Island. In 2007, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center opened on Jekyll.
“One of the unique features of the GSTC is that it integrates rehabilitation services for injured sea turtles and other wildlife, veterinary, ecological, and conservation research, professional student training, and interactive education for the public,” Norton notes. “Over the past (five) years, approximately 100,000 visitors have toured the GSTC annually. The GSTC has an educational presentation area, retail space, a rehabilitative pavilion where injured turtles are nursed back to health, and a state-of-the-art hospital with rooms dedicated to surgery, digital radiology, and treatment and diagnostic procedures. The center has a staff of 13 full-time, several seasonal hourly staff, and 10 full-time and eight part-time Americorp members. Additionally, rotating veterinary externs, graduate students, and more than 150 volunteers frequent the center on a regular basis.”
Before the center, Georgia had no place to treat injured or sick turtles. The center offers a treatment facility that helps turtles from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Massachusetts.
“Some of the more common problems include boat strike and other traumatic injuries, fishing line and hook entanglements and ingestion, fibropapillomatosis, flotation abnormities, and cold stunning,” Norton notes. “In 2010 alone, over 100 sea turtles were rehabilitated at the GSTC.”
The VSU Biology Department’s 31st Annual Connell Lecture: The Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Dr. Terry Norton.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 12.
Where: Magnolia Room, VSU University Center.
Admission: Free and open to the public.