Florida Bay Introduced Sea Turtles: How They're Helping One of Florida's Most Endangered Ecosystem
Florida Bay is home to over 100 species of plants and animals, including the Kemp's ridley sea turtle and the green sea turtles. But the turtle's nesting population has declined by more than 99 % since 1960.
Florida Bay introduced sea turtles to help these endangered ecosystems recover by eating the invasive lionfish that prey on native fish populations.
The Turtle Project
Florida's sprawling Florida Bay covers about 1,600 square miles, a narrow stretch of water south of the Everglades. It's one of the largest estuaries on Florida's east coast.
Wildlife officials are working on getting rid of diseases, including red tide and flesh-eating sea lice, affecting fish and sea turtle populations in the bay. In 2016, 25 sea turtles died during a red tide bloom.
Officials are also trying to address the issue of algae blooms, which can kill fish and help native fish to thrive.
In Florida Bay, sea turtles show up in different places. So conservationists are going out and collecting up these individuals. They're setting them up and preparing them, trying to get them acclimated to this environment.
For many years, sea turtles have called the Florida Bay home. Over the years, though, the area has become a kind of no man's land for the sea turtles due to the critical area of suitable habitat and the negative effects of human activities.
The endangered sea turtle population is being protected by rehabilitation centers, including the Cape Canaveral Recreation & Aquatic Park, where green and loggerhead turtles are being nursed back to health before being released into the bay.
Before releasing the rehabilitated sea turtles, staff carefully inspect them for infections, disease, and fractures that could prevent them from swimming away. Once the turtles are deemed healthy enough, they are released and headed for their new home.
Increased restoration efforts
Conservancy groups have jerked up efforts to make Florida Bay more habitable to turtles and directly reintroduce turtles to the ecosystem. A recent video released by Sea Turtle Conservancy shows dozens of sea turtles released from a rehabilitation center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
This is all part of a larger initiative called the Florida Bay Restoration Program. Experts believe that sea turtles have taken up residence in Florida Bay for more than 500 years, but there are now less than 50 nesting pairs in the ecosystem, the most endangered of Florida's Great Bays.
"Not only are they important to the survival of this habitat, but they're also important to the recovery of the species," says Kylie Burt, a program director at the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Why sea turtles are important in Florida bay
According to Ashley Millarn, a marine scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, sea turtles deserve to live and thrive in Florida Bay. They're an important part of the ecosystem, especially at one point in the past when they were listed as an endangered species.
But the impacts of commercial fishing have caused a decline in turtle numbers. Commercial fishing has also led to a decrease in the natural vegetation in the bay.
The rehab center says the rehabilitation process takes more than 40 days, and as of now, 113 sea turtles are at the center.
A "cleaner" for the ecosystem
Sea turtles eat three times as many algae as any other organism, giving them a significant impact on the bay's health. In addition to eating algae, they also clean up trash and debris from the water. The more trash they find, the less trash there is for marine life to consume.
The sea turtles released are helping to return the bay to its former beauty. As they feed on algae growing on seaweed, they help remove it from the water column. This, in turn, helps make the water clearer and cleaner for all of the other animals who call Florida Bay home. They also serve as a magnet for tourists, which means more money is being spent in communities nearby.
The turtles released are raised in life-size turtle pens. They have been rehabilitated and are ready for release. The turtles are all released to offshore waters, which is where they'll be traveling to after they've been released from the rehabilitation center.
"They're doing really well, and that's the whole point of this. They're going to go offshore, and they're going to go back into Florida Bay," says Stephanie Nipe with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Nipe says the turtles are released into Florida Bay to re-establish a population in the area. The turtles are some of the most endangered globally, and there's a chance that sea turtles could become extinct soon.
In Florida, sea turtle nests are often buried in the sand and killed by wildlife such as manatees or birds, so there has been a surge of conservation work to keep the nests safe.
Florida Bay visitors can observe the turtles through the windows in the turtle nurseries or take part in releasing them back to the waters.