Volusia's sea turtle rehab hits record number patients. It's only June.

Mary Helen Moore
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

PONCE INLET — With sea turtle strandings on the Florida coast continuing a decades-long climb and a record-breaking year underway at the Marine Science Center, Volusia County's sea turtle rehabilitation facility could soon see federal money flowing its way.

"We have already beaten our record for the most number of sea turtles in one year, which was 171," Chad Macfie, the Marine Science Center's manager, said this week. "And we have half a year to go."

Rhea goes for a peice of fish at feeding time, Tuesday June 29, 2021 at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

As of June 30, the center had taken in 173 turtles: 165 green sea turtles, seven loggerheads and one Kemp's ridley.

"So this will be a record year, and a record that you don't really want to break. But that's what's happening, so it's good that we're able to be a service," said Allie Bernstein, who manages turtle rehabilitation for the center.

At their July 22 meeting, Volusia County officials threw their support behind a proposal for a $5 million pilot program in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to offer direct financial support to institutions that rehabilitate sea turtles or respond to strandings.

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The capacity at the Marine Science Center has been pushed to its limit in 2021. They have 11 pools that can be shared by sea turtles of the same species if they're healthy and friendly enough. Ideally, the maximum number of sea turtle patients at a time is 35, Bernstein said. 

"This year, the most sea turtles we had on site was 49," she said. 

Macfie drew in a quick breath: “Sheesh, that’s crazy.” 

Colorful fish swim in the coral reef display at the Marine Science Center Tuesday June 29, 2021 in Ponce Inlet.

"Now the turtles that are just coming in, they're often too debilitated to be in water for the first couple days, but when we're at like 40+ turtles, it gets a little tight," Bernstein continued.  "We can make it work. We always make it work."

The proposed support from Congress couldn't come at a better time.

"As we start to see an increase in strandings and sea turtles that are admitted, obviously that puts strains on the budget, so funding initiatives like this would be very helpful to ensure patient care," he said.

In June, Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower wrote letters to Rep. Mike Waltz and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott seeking support of the federal spending measure on behalf of the county council.

"Under our current model of operations, the County of Volusia spends approximately $1.7 million per year and is heavily reliant upon 225 volunteers who typically donate close to 13,000 hours of service to the preservation of our sea turtle population," Brower wrote.

Allie Bernstein, manager turtle rhab, Tuesday June 29, 2021 at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

The Marine Science Center has cared for more than 25,000 sea turtle patients and nearly 20,000 birds since it opened in 2002. 

It exists as mitigation for the harm beach driving causes seabirds and sea turtles. All sea turtle species that visit Florida are classified as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The center's role in mitigation was formally added to the county's U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-mandated habitat conservation plan in 2005, when a federal judge renewed the permit allowing driving on the beach for another 25 years, until 2030.

The push for funding is being led by the National Aquarium and South Carolina Aquarium, citing increasing demand nationwide.

A Balloonfish ( spiny porcupinefish ) at the Marine Science Center Tuesday June 29, 2021 in Ponce Inlet.

"These institutions (in the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network) play an increasingly critical role in sea turtle species conservation and currently operate with little to no direct financial support from either NOAA or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," they wrote in their proposal, noting NOAA does provide grants for organizations responding to marine mammal strandings.

The federal budget must be agreed upon by Oct. 1 and the Senate is in the "final stages of accepting appropriations requests," county officials report.

Florida sea turtle strandings have been on the rise for decades

The number of reports of stranded sea turtles along the Atlantic coast of Florida has risen steadily over the decades, according to figures collected by NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Alyssa Hancock, assistant manager turtle rehab, makes the morning feeding rounds, Tuesday June 29, 2021 at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

A "stranded" sea turtle is one that is found dead, sick or injured.

In the 1990s, Florida averaged 721 strandings per year along the Atlantic coast. In the 2000s, that figure rose to 869 per year, then climbed to 1,094 in the 2010s.

Halfway through 2021, there have been 816 reported strandings on Florida's Atlantic coast.

The Marine Science Center has seen its admissions rise steadily in the past two decades.

"Every year varies, but since we've opened in 2002, we have seen that steady incline," Bernstein said.

Volusia County's Marine Science Center is in the midst of a record-breaking year, having seen more sea turtle patients midway through 2021 than any other year since it opened in Ponce Inlet two decades ago.

The cooler months tend to be the busiest.  

"We're always busy January through April," Bernstein said. "A lot of those turtles come in chronically debilitated, so they've been sick or injured for a long period of time and then the cold and the rough surf is just an extra stressor."

Current patients include Timon, a hawksbill who had to be tube-fed for months but has finally started gaining weight. Hawksbills are one of the rarer species in Volusia County because of their affinity for coral reefs, but Timon was found tangled in sargassum in New Smyrna Beach.

There's also a 240-pound loggerhead named Sunrise, who stranded in Daytona Beach underweight and covered with barnacles and leeches. Sunrise is fond of blowing large bubbles when she surfaces for air.

A green sea turtle named Poppins was the Marine Science Center's 25,000th intake in Ponce Inlet, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

Some sea turtles stay for a day, if the issue is as simple as a newly stuck fish hook. Others have stayed as long as two years. 

One of the long-haulers was Quantum, a loggerhead who stayed for nearly 20 months before being released in April. She had been hit by a boat, injuring both front flippers and nearly amputating one.

Reptiles take a long time to heal. It’s a cold-blooded thing, Bernstein explained. Quantum gained 69 pounds over the course of her stay. 

"Those wounds were really deep and really tricky to treat," Bernstein said. "She came through and we were able to save that flipper and get her back out there."

The eggs being laid on Volusia County beaches now will soon begin hatching, with August through November the peak season for rescued hatchlings and washbacks at the Marine Science Center. 

As for why their intake numbers have climbed in recent years, Bernstein said many factors could be likely contributors: variations in weather and surf conditions; recovering sea turtle populations; more people interacting with, finding and reporting turtles; and changing ocean ecosystems — to name a few.

The loss of Florida's seagrass habitats, thought to be starving manatees and leading to a die-off that's anticipated to break records in 2021, certainly doesn't help, according to Macfie.

"Seagrasses are the foundation of the food chain in the Indian River Lagoon and so many species rely on them," Macfie said. "It's not just sea turtles and manatees, the things that make the news. There’s thousands of fishes, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles that depend on that foundation."

Seahorses in the Seagrass Communities display, Tuesday June 29, 2021 at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

Bernstein said the Marine Science Center has taken in emaciated sea turtles and a food shortage could be part of the reason, but a variety of other factors might affect a turtle’s ability to feed.

"Which comes first? Do they have something else going on? We aren't able to really correlate that yet," she said.

Pandemic closure offers opportunity for upgrades

The Marine Science Center fully reopened June 2 after the coronavirus pandemic forced the doors to close to the public for more than a year.

The closure didn't mean the center went idle, however.

Yes, they still cared for sick turtles and seabirds, but they also shifted their educational efforts online, getting more than 1 million touches on social media through educational videos, virtual field trips and more.

Macfie said they spent a lot of time during the pandemic renovating and retooling their exhibits.

Youngsters at the biofluorescence display slide a orange colored filter to view the bright greens, orange and red colors on the coral, Tuesday June 29, 2021 at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

A new biofluorescence exhibit was added, with a filter that reveals the neon glow of a variety of coral species. Another new exhibit holds a staghorn coral ecosystem, with insight into how the critically endangered corals are transplanted.

They installed interactive touchscreens throughout the facility and TVs offering a live aerial view of turtles as they are being treated on the exam table. The massive ray-filled touch tank was moved to a sidewall, opening up the room.

But perhaps more than anything, staff are happy to welcome the public back into the building.

"It's nice to have visitors and guests again and interact with people and talk turtle with people. I really enjoy that part of my job," Bernstein said. "For a while it was just animal care staff."

Visiters gather around the touch pool, as staff feeds the rays, Tuesday June 29, 2021 at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

"One of our major missions is to educate the public on human impacts and Volusia County’s marine environments, so we really missed that," Macfie added.

What to do if you see a sea turtle in distress

All sea turtles that spend time in U.S. waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it's illegal to touch or harass them.

Anyone who comes across a baby sea turtle on the beach should contact the Volusia County Beach Safety Division at 386-239-6414. They are trained in dealing with washbacks and hatchlings.

If you find a dead, sick, or injured sea turtle, call FWC's 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number at 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922) and be prepared to answer some questions:

  • What is the exact location of the turtle? Where is the closest access point for those responding?
  • Is it dead or alive? If the turtle is alive, please be prepared to stay with it until help arrives.
  • What is the approximate size of the turtle?
  • Is it marked with spray paint? This may indicate the turtle has been previously documented.