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'One death is too many': The sea-turtle tragedy

FETHİYE, Muğla - Hürriyet Daily News | 9/14/2009 12:00:00 AM | JANE TUNA

Once again, Fethiye's residents discussed the sad news of the death of a sea turtle. Many individuals and authorities lack awareness of these endangered species, but a team of biologists led by Yakup Kaska on Iztuzu Beach hopes to turn things around

Last week, a mature female green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) was found floating in the Mediterranean, barely alive, outside the famous Olüdeniz lagoon. Covered in slime as a result of being unable to dive, the turtle had lost both its front flippers.

The right flipper appeared to have been severed at some point in the past. The left was an open wound, around which a fishing line was still attached, cutting deeply into the flesh. Local businessman Apo Tanç spotted the turtle and brought it ashore in his boat. The injured creature was then taken to a rehabilitation center in Dalyan by Meryem Tekin, the local representative for the Underwater Research Society, or SAD.

A loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) found dead on the shore between Fethiye and Çalış the following day was the victim of a boat propeller, which cut off its hindquarters. Both of these sea turtles are endangered species and both were adult, reproductive females. As sea turtles can live for more than 100 years and only become sexually mature after 25-30 years, any death or injury has a dangerous impact on the species. Tekin points out that any death or debilitating injury to an endangered species is totally unacceptable, especially given that with some regulation many of these deaths could be avoided.

“It is really important that the authorities start thinking about how to decrease or contain sea-turtle deaths. Propeller guards and no-go zones near nesting beaches for motor boats are just two ideas that should be discussed.”

These are just two of the many sea turtles that have been killed or injured on this part of the Mediterranean coastline. Tekin has asked that all sightings be reported. So far this season, she has recorded seven deaths. “But these are only the ones that are either seen or reported to me,” she said.

Ali İhsan Emre, a colleague of Tekin’s who has been working to protect sea turtles for more than 20 years, said his records suggest an increase in these injuries and deaths. “Unfortunately, it is not unusual to find up to 14 fatalities in the Gulf of Fethiye each season, and as the number of boats in the area increases, so do the injuries. There is a big problem with fishing lines, hooks and plastic bags, all of which can kill or injure sea turtles.”

Environmental and marine authorities should take immediate action to protect these rare and beautiful creatures. Research suggests that only one in 1,000 sea turtles reaches maturity. Activists are now becoming more vocal in their concern, reiterating time and again that virtually nothing is being done to safeguard these magnificent aquatic reptiles.

“It seems that everyone wants to use the Caretta caretta as a iconic symbol to make money. … Just look at the tourist trade around here,” said Ismail Nalbantoğlu, a coastal- and marine-management specialist. “They are used for everything from the name of a bar to a plastic-turtle keychain to the design on a T-shirt. This is no less than exploitation of the sea turtle. Every one wants to benefit from their popularity with tourists, but no one is prepared to do what is needed to protect them.”

The outlook for sea turtles may still be grim, but there is a small beacon of hope in the form of a rehabilitation center that opened in Dalyan in 2008. Although basic in design and in much need of additional resources, it is staffed by a committed team from Pamukkale University, led by an assistant professor of biology, Dr. Yakup Kaska. It was to this rather remote but crucial facility that Tekin took the rescued green turtle (now named Şanslı, or Lucky).

She is now being cared for by the facility’s post-graduate students, although Kaska does not think it is likely that Şanslı will be able to survive at sea. “It is unlikely that she will be able to dive to the sea bed to feed on the grasses that form her staple diet. Like all green turtles, she is a vegetarian. At the moment, we are feeding her lettuce and other green vegetables, which are not her normal food although she seems to enjoy them.” Her future is uncertain, unless Şanslı can be fitted with a prosthetic limb. Meanwhile, the center hopes to attract sufficient funds to purchase a dive tank.

A dive tank, roughly 5 meters deep, would cost about $10,000. Housing turtles in such a tank is the only way to discover whether rehabilitating turtles like Şanslı are fit enough to be released. Until then, three loggerheads – two with propeller wounds and one with fishing-line lacerations to her front flippers – and Şanslı will be long-term residents of the center.

Kaska is devoted to his reptilian patients and is happy to discuss how, 20 years ago, he first came to the beach at Iztuzu, Dalyan, as an undergraduate to study the nesting of the loggerhead. “There was no development here in 1988, but soon afterwards hotels were planned, and it was only through the determined effort of conservationists, environmentalists and people who care about the sea turtles that this area, known as the Köyceğiz-Dalyan Special Environmental Protection Area, came to be.”

“The female Caretta caretta hatchlings that struggled down to the sea 20 years ago and survived to adulthood are now beginning to come back here to lay their eggs. Their reproductive years can last from 25 to 30 years. Every sea turtle that dies is one too many. I am now beginning to see the hatchlings that I helped on their way 20 years ago come back as adults. This is a great honor.”

The dream for all those who work in the facility is that they will soon be able to build a visitor’s center. Kaska imagines a building in the shape of a loggerhead turtle. “Maybe something like that would attract people who want to find out more about sea turtles and support our important project.” Many hope that he won’t have to wait another 20 years.

Kaska and his colleagues are appealing to anyone who is interested in helping or supporting them in their year-round work to contact him at caretta@pau.edu.tr or call 0533 573 5339.

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