One of the core missions of the U.S. Coast Guard is marine environmental protection. Whether educating the boating public about reducing speeds around manatees, enforcing protection zones for whales or working with partner agencies to remove derelict fishing nets from reefs, the Coast Guard ensures our nation’s waterways and their ecosystems remain healthy and sustainable.
But it wasn’t manatees, whales or reefs in the limelight last week – it was turtles; 505 turtles to be exact.
Only about one in 1,000 baby turtles survive to adulthood making their protection critical and necessary to help populations recover to healthy, sustainable levels.
“Coast Guard vessels are operating at sea 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and the men and women aboard do what they can to render aid to protected species in distress, including sea turtles,” said Steven Tucker, deputy chief for marine protected resources in the Coast Guard Office of Maritime Law Enforcement Policy.
Of the seven species of sea turtle found around the world, six are found in U.S. waters and each of these species is listed under the Endangered Species Act. While sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean, adult females must return to beaches to lay their eggs.
To help out local turtle populations in Florida, Station Fort Lauderdale partnered with the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center out of Boca Raton, Fla., to release turtle hatchlings found on Florida beaches into the Florida Gulfstream. The baby turtles – 311 loggerhead and 194 green sea turtles – were released into the reef line to provide them with a better source of protection and food in the open ocean.
Gumbo Limbo’s program, run by marine scientist Melanie Stadler, monitors more than 600 turtle nests a year within a five-mile span of beaches. The nature center monitors the beaches for sea turtles to nest and after the turtle lays her nest and goes back to sea the nest is marked. After a few days they excavate the nest and bring the baby turtles to the nature center where they are held in a swim tank and their health monitored until they can be safely brought out to sea.
Chief Petty Officer Cannon Schider-Heisel is a volunteer at the nature center and was one of the beach monitors who first brought some of the hatchlings in.
“A lot of these I literally pulled out of a nest,” said Stadler in an interview during the turtle release. “I have a connection with a lot of them, as do the rest of the turtle specialists. We all rescue these little guys every morning and knowing that we get to release them and they are healthy and ready to go is pretty awesome.”
Being part of the marine protection mission is a daily occurrence for Schider-Heisel, a marine science technician at Sector Miami. But working with protected species was entirely new for Petty Officer 3rd Class Humberto Diaz.
Diaz was the coxswain for the unique mission of transporting the turtles, charged with keeping everyone aboard safe – including the two-day-old hatchlings. Diaz, one of the newer coxswains at the unit, had some experience with environmental protection and as a crewmember in San Diego was often called out for safety zones during oil spills or oil sheen sightings. In what he calls an “awesome experience,” however, this was the first time he was directly involved with a protected species.
“I’ve done a lot of multi-mission law enforcement missions – recreational boating safety, boardings and fisheries – but this was what I consider one of the best missions at this unit,” said Diaz. “This was rewarding because you always see the other side of the Coast Guard but you rarely get to see this side and to get to be part of that was great.”
While the Coast Guard works with local, state and federal agencies to ensure species are protected, the public also has a role in being stewards of the ocean. The public should keep a safe distance and avoid handling or disturbing stranded or entangled animals. To help, the public should report any entangled or stranded animals to a local stranding hotline or to the U.S. Coast Guard on the radio via channel 16.