Sea turtles have existed since the time of the dinosaurs. Once abundant, the sea turtle population has seen a dramatic decline in the past centuries. Major threats to sea turtles are commercial fishing with sea turtles caught or injured by fishing nets; illegal harvest of sea turtle eggs; trafficking of sea turtle products; habitat loss and ocean pollution.
Dr. Jeff Schmid has been studying Kemp’s ridley sea turtles for 30 years. Tracking their movements is one of his research projects through the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (the “Conservancy”). Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are considered the most endangered species of marine turtles. It is also the most common species inhabiting our coastal waters.
On October 24th, the author joined Dr. Schmid in the Ten Thousand Islands to release KitKat2, a juvenile Kemp’s that was a recapture from the previous year. A satellite transmitter was attached to KitKat2’s carapace (shell) to track movements and collect data. The transmitter will send a message to a satellite each time KitKat2 comes to the surface to breathe. It will transmit its location and plot them onto a map.
According to Dr. Schmid, KitKat2 is a rapidly growing juvenile and turtles grow out from the seams on their shell. As it grows, the top layer sloughs off. The transmitter will remain attached several months before falling off. KitKat2 had the transmitter from the previous year. Sea turtles feed and live in one place and swim thousands of miles to another place to breed and lay their eggs. Satellite tracking is an important tool to study their movements.
The Conservancy was also awarded a research grant from the Sea Turtle Grants Program and Dr. Jeff Schmid, Mr. Greg Curry of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Dr. Jeff Seminoff with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center collaboratively study the dietary habits of the Kemp’s Ridley in the Ten Thousand Islands.
According to Dr. Schmid, KitKat2 had eaten spiders, stones and calico crabs, as well as sea squirts. Turtles swallow them whole, and part of ongoing studies is to look at what the Kemp’s are feeding upon based on fecal samples.
Dr. Schmid stated that the dead Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that recently washed ashore on Marco Island and Collier County were probably affected by the red tide. Kemp’s eat sea squirts, which filter the red tide algae and the toxin becomes incorporated into the sea squirt. When ingested, sea turtles may become ill or die.
Full grown Kemp’s weigh up to 100 pounds. KitKat2 is immature, probably female, and won’t be sexually mature until about 14-15 years, just like humans. Dr. Schmid has been doing research on the Kemp’s since 1986 – fresh out of school, and Kemp’s he’s tagged early in his career have been seen nesting for over 26 years.
Some of the research being done on the Kemp’s are short term with a quicker turn-around time, such as the diet studies. As indicated by their studies, the Kemp’s diet is continually changing. Turtles are adapting to the changes in food availability, which is a good indication in light of climate changes.
Asked if he has seen plastic in the Kemp’s diet, Dr. Schmid said, “not on a macro level.”
Conservancy research activities are conducted under NMFS permit #22123 and FFWCC permit #136.