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Galveston NMFS Sea Turtles

History

Since 1978, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been participating in an international Sea Turtle recovery program.Currently the NMFS Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is participating in the following:

I. Captive Rearing Program


The objective of the loggerhead captive rearing program is to produce turtles of similar size classes encountered as by-catch in commercial fisheries.  NOAA NMFS Galveston acquires 200 loggerhead hatchlings annually from Florida.  It takes 20-22 months to produce a loggerhead of the sufficient size for certifying Turtle Excluder Devices.  It takes 3-4 years to produce a turtle that is of the size [45-65 cm straight carapace length] encountered in pelagic longline fisheries.  The facility is able to produce large numbers of equally sized, healthy animals which leads to robust statistical analyses in scientific experiments.

The Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is the only facility of its size and class in the world. The rare availability of captive reared turtles supports NOAA mission research on fishery interactions, ecology, toxicology, disease, tracking, sensory biology, physiology and behavior in cooperation university research partners. Some of the projects are as follows:

(1) Molecular, Cellular and Biological Effects of Environmental Pollutants in Sea Turtles Project

Tissue samples from live and fresh dead sea turtles are used to culture cell lines that can be exposed to industrial chemicals, pesticides, hydrocarbons and metals present in the ocean.  On a molecular level, the extent of exposure can be measured.  The techniques for growing cell lines has been developed which will allow scientists to measure and quantify the exposure of pollutants on endangered sea turtles without physically exposing an animal.  The captive reared loggerheads are a large uniform group from which live skin biopsies can be collected.  This research is possible through scientists at the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University.

(2) Immunological Effects of Environmental Pollutants in the Loggerhead Turtle Project

Producing sea turtle cell lines [tissue cultures] for experimental research is labor intensive and takes several months to yield sufficient size for experimentation.  We may be able to use blood cells to measure the biological response to environmental toxins.  Blood can be easily sampled from sea turtles and does not require the development of cell lines.  Work is being done in cooperation with Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, The University of Connecticut.

(3) Pharmacokinetic Antibiotic Studies Project

Very little research has been done to determine how long antimicrobial medications remain at therapeutic levels in reptiles.  This information is critical for the care and treatment of sick sea turtles.  The Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is the ideal test facility for such research, having large numbers of equal aged sea turtles in one and easily accessible for sampling.  Pharmacokinetic studies on Clindamycin and Oxytetracycline are cooperation with specialists at North Carolina State University and the Houston Zoo.

(4) Functional Measures of Sea Turtle Hearing Project

There is growing concern over anthropogenic sound in the world’s oceans and the potentially harmful effect it has on protected marine organisms.  Anthropogenic noises can originate from a multitude of sources, including shipping traffic, seismic surveys for petroleum exploration, military sonar operations, and pile driving.  These sounds have the potential to impact an animal in several ways: alteration of behavior, masking of biologically significant sounds, trauma to hearing, and trauma to non-hearing tissue (barotraumas).  Little is currently known about sea turtle auditory systems.  Captive reared loggerheads are being used to investigate the auditory capabilities of sea turtles.  This project is being done in cooperation with Virginia Wesleyan College and Old Dominion College University.

(5) Examination of Satellite Transmitter Attachment on Loggerhead Sea Turtles Project

Small sea turtles grow rapidly in warm water, with the scutes of their carapace moving like tectonic plates, resulting in premature shedding of hard glued-on tags.  Dummy satellite tags with traditional hard epoxy glues were compared with a new flexible neoprene mount.  The neoprene mounting technique shows promise and has already been adopted by tagging programs in the USA, France and Australia.  The work was done in cooperation with Texas A&M University at Galveston using captive reared loggerhead sea turtles.

(6) Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) and Coded Wire Tag (CWT) Research Project

Captive sea turtles have been used to develop and evaluate tags for sea turtles.   The large number of sea turtles allows for direct comparison between experimental and control groups.  Laboratory tag placement studies on hatchling to juvenile Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads have advanced our ability to tag small turtles and identify safe and uniform tagging locations.

II. Gear Research Program


The objective of the gear research program is to develop, evaluate and refine fishing gear modifications to promote sea turtle conservation while retaining a sustainable fisheries catch. Projects are:

(1) Turtle Excluder Device (TED) Certification Project

Two year old captive loggerheads from the NOAA Galveston facility are the scientific standard for evaluating and certifying TEDs.  Each year, the 20-24 month old loggerheads are transported from Texas to Panama City, Florida where they are held and used for testing TEDs in trawls.  Shrimp trawls were the primary focus but the project has been expanded to include fish and scallop trawls.  The TED project is internationally recognized and accepted as a worldwide standard for evaluating sea turtle friendly trawl gear.

(2) Turtle Excluder Device (TED) Trials with Satellite Tagged Turtles

Turtles with and without dummy satellite tags were sent through a trawl equipped with a Turtle Excluder Device in an attempt investigating whether the satellite tag impeded the turtle’s ability to escape.  Recommendations on changing the profile of the epoxy mount were made and subsequent work is currently being done to have the satellite tag manufacturers modify the tag base to better fit sea turtles.   The project was done concurrently with annual TED certification and was done in cooperation with Texas A&M University at Galveston.

(3) Tests of Bait Modifications to Reduce Sea Turtles Hooked In Longline Fisheries

Sea turtles are incidentally captured in pelagic longline fisheries, and hook ingestion is one leading cause of mortality in these gear interactions.  Using captive reared loggerhead sea turtles the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) is investigating the effects of hook size and design, and bait type and technique, on hook ingestion potential and feeding behavior. Other similar projects have investigated bait color, light sticks, artificial baits and chemical deterrents with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC).  

(4) Functional Analysis of Biting in Loggerhead Turtles within the Context of Longline Fishery Interactions:  Biomechanics as a Tool in Conservation

Bite force and morphometric data was measured on hatchling to juvenile captive loggerheads.  A multiple linear regression was conducted to determine how bite force and body and head measurements are related and which body or head morphometric best predicts loggerhead bite force.  The data will be used to develop a model for testing hook shape and configurations that will be less likely to catch and injure sea turtles.  This work was done in cooperation with Texas A&M University at Galveston and the PISFSC.

(5) Modification of Fishing Gear Incorporating Shark Characteristics

Several pilot studies have been completed investigating the combination of a shark shape as a potential sea turtle deterrent.  The repelling characteristics of a fiberglass shark model were quantified in the laboratory using juvenile captive loggerheads.  The idea of an innate predator avoidance behavior has been tested in the field in conjunction with gill nets in Baja, Mexico.  This work was done in cooperation with Texas A&M University at Galveston and the PIFSC.

(6) Australian Hook Guards

A new device has been patented by an Australian ex-fisherman/entrepreneur which shields the barb of a longline hook during deployment to keep sea birds and sea turtles from ingesting the baited hooks.  The device is called the Smart Hook® and consists of a metal cap or shield which covers the barb of the hook.  The Smart Hook® was tested on captive loggerheads during a cooperative project with Ahi Enterprises Pty., Ltd. and the University of Queensland, Australia.  In 2009, the Smart Hook® was awarded the People’s Choice Invention in Australia.  The device can be seen at:  http://www.abc.net.au/tv/newinventors/txt/s2331630.htm

III. Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Program


The objective of the stranding and salvage program is to:  Document sea turtle strandings on the upper Texas coast; Collect sea turtle carcasses and necropsy them; Recover sick and injured sea turtles for rehabilitation; Foster cooperation and coordination among State and Federal Agencies participating in the Sea Turtle Salvage and Stranding Network (STSSN) in responding to major sea turtle stranding events; Respond to requests for assistance from other SEFSC Laboratories during high mortality events involving sea turtles; and Document sea turtle nesting on the upper Texas coast.  Projects include:

(1) Beach Survey

Each week, the entire upper Texas coast from the Sabine River to the Brazos River [Shrimp Statistical Area 18] is examined for sea turtles and marine mammals.

(2) Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation

With the assistance of the Houston Zoo, NOAA Galveston operates a sea turtle hospital that serves the upper Texas coast.  Dozens of sick and injured sea turtles are treated, rehabilitated and returned to the wild each year.  We manage a sea turtle telephone hotline which fields calls from the public reporting nesting, injured and dead sea turtles.

(3) Satellite Telemetry of Wild Turtles

Through STSSN nesting response activities, the NOAA Fisheries Sea Turtle Facility assists in providing adult nesting Kemp’s ridleys to the Texas A&M University at Galveston Sea Turtle and Fisheries Ecology Research Laboratory for satellite tracking.

Stranding / Rehabilitation

Report any turtle stranded in Texas to: 

1-866-TURTLE5 (1-866-887-8535)

Tours

Tours are available by appointment only. See the tour Q&A page for more details.

 

Visitor Status

Sea Turtle Identification 

Kemp's Ridley (click for larger)

Leatherback (click for larger)

Green (click for larger)

Hawksbill (click for larger)

Loggerhead (click for larger)