Long Island Sound Boats and turtles a bad mix
NORWALK — Experts are stunned by the toll that boats are taking on loggerhead sea turtles in Long Island Sound after a fourth turtle, its shell crushed by a boat prop, was discovered recently at Silver Sands State Park in Milford.
Two other loggerheads that met the same fate washed ashore July 15 and Aug. 29 on Long Beach in Stratford, and another was discovered on Norwalk’s Sheffield Island on Aug. 9.
“It’s frustrating to keep having to say this, but we urge boaters to be aware that sea turtles are in the Sound at this time of year, and thus to watch where they’re going,” said David Hudson, research scientist for The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk.
Hudson said that in states where sea turtles are more common, there are intensive campaigns asking boaters to watch out for the creatures and other air-breathing aquatic life.
“Perhaps it’s about time that we start doing the same thing here,” he said. “Loggerheads and other sea turtles are more common now in Long Island Sound — partly because some fish species have recovered and (the turtles) will follow what they eat.”
Hudson said that global warming is likely playing a role here, too. While they’ve been known to frequent the Sound of decades, experts say the sea turtles are arriving earlier and staying later now.
Hudson recommended that boaters reduce their speeds, especially in comparatively shallower waters and anywhere near sea grasses, where some turtles feed. He discouraged the use of autopilot, and encouraged assigning a passenger to serve as a spotter.
Sea turtles are most vulnerable to boat collisions when they come to the surface to breathe and warm themselves in the sun. At the surface, Hudson said, the turtles are least able to make avoidance maneuvers.
“But if a boat is approaching one at, say, 30 knots, it would be very difficult for one to get out of the way,” Hudson said. “Even dolphins, which are more maneuverable and far more intelligent, get struck by pleasure craft quite frequently.”
Dan Evans, a wildlife biologist with the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, Fla., said that if four dead loggerheads were found on local beaches, there are quite likely many more that were struck by boats this summer on Long Island Sound.
“There are quite likely many times that number” he said. “If they were struck out on the Sound, they would likely sink to the bottom instead.”
He said it’s believed that sea turtles have poor hearing, so they wouldn’t know if a boat was approaching.
“Their ears are poorly developed, and they don’t vocalize, so there’s no evolutionary need for them to hear well,” he said. “Plus, they surface quickly for air, making them susceptible to boat strikes. They see well underwater, but their hearing is poor.”
Loggerheads appeared when dinosaurs ruled the planet 100 million years ago. But the color of their shells, which has served them well over the ages by keeping them unnoticed, leaves the turtles poorly equipped to survive in a human-ruled Earth with its pleasure craft.
The loggerhead, Caretta caretta, is found almost worldwide. There are about 10 sub-populations that are found in every major sea and ocean, including the Mediterranean. The group found in Long Island Sound is part of the Northwest Atlantic population that breeds along the shores of the Southern states and Mexico.
Worldwide, the loggerhead is seen as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the international agency that tracks wild animals and their threats of becoming extinct. The turtles suffer from a host of human-caused indignities including shoreline development, poaching of eggs, drowning in fishing nets, boat encounters, plastic debris and so forth.
“Another thing that might be going on is that people are more aware today, and they have cell phones, which makes it a lot easier to call in animals in distress,” Hudson said. “In a sense it might be a good sign — if there are more loggerheads, you would expect more boat strikes.”
When strikes do happen, or if an injured or dead turtle is found, boaters should call Mystic Aquarium, which is the federally designated responder to marine mammal and sea turtles strandings and entanglements in Connecticut. The number is 860-572-5955, ext. 107.
“They can rehabilitate well from a hull collision,” Evans said. “But an incident involving a prop is usually either fatal, or the animal will have to remain in captivity to feed because they develop a condition in which they remain always buoyant.”