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Dead turtles washing ashore on mid-Atlantic coast

Thursday - 6/21/2012, 12:33pm  ET

By MOLLY MURRAY
The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.

LEWES, Del. - In the weeks between late May and June, five sea turtles washed ashore along Delaware's beaches. Then, over last weekend into Monday, that number more than doubled: six additional dead turtles were found.

Along New Jersey beaches, four dead sea turtles washed in on Sunday alone. And along the Virginia coast, the number of dead turtles was abnormally high during May.

State and federal officials who monitor sea turtle populations said they don't know if the numbers indicate any problem.

"This time of year, turtles are migrating," said Edna Stetzer, a state biologist. "They might be more concentrated."

And several days of onshore winds may have driven dead and dying turtles _ creatures that wouldn't typically be discovered _ up onto beaches in the area, said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the MERR Institute, Delaware's marine stranding organization.

Kate Sampson, the federal sea turtle stranding and disentanglement coordinator in this region, said federal, state and regional stranding coordinators from Maine to Virginia are gathering for planned quarterly meetings next week and will discuss what they have been seeing.

Sampson said that turtles typically begin arriving along the Virginia coast in April and May, then move north. The Chesapeake and Delaware bays are popular summer feeding grounds for juvenile loggerhead turtles.

"Once turtles start moving into an area, the strandings start to increase," she said.

The one concern in Virginia is that strandings in May numbered 58 sea turtles. So far in June, there have been 39, she said. Typically, those numbers would be reversed, she said.

So the question is: "What is that all about?" she said. "So far, there is no one smoking gun."

One factor may be the impact from a warmer-than-usual winter and early spring _ something that affected everything from horseshoe crab spawning to plant flowering.

Another may be the strong onshore winds of the last few weeks. What is not known is whether other factors _ boat strikes, marine pollution or disease _ also could be playing a role, she said.

Delaware's numbers, for instance, are a little higher than normal but not alarming, she said.

Warmer water temperatures do allow species such as sea turtles to move north sooner to forage for food, she said.

One thing officials in Delaware look for is whether the turtles show signs of injury, such as from a boat strike or entanglement with fishing gear, Stetzer said. The bigger concern, she said, is if they are washing up for no apparent reason.

The state Division of Fish & Wildlife and the MERR Institute hold a joint permit to respond to turtle strandings.

Rob Rector, with the MERR Institute, responded to one stranding in early June.

The turtle was a 200-pound sub-adult loggerhead, he said. It showed no signs of a propeller strike. "We know that for a fact," he said.

The shell did have some dislocations, but that could be caused by tumbling in the surf, he said.

Of the Delaware turtle strandings, all but one have been loggerheads. One of the strandings last weekend was a leatherback.

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Tags: sea turtle