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Date of Issue: August 18, 2005

12 sea turtles strand on Island beaches

"Nothing like this has ever happened on Anna Maria Island," said Suzi Fox about the record 12 sea turtle strandings here in the past week.

Three were alive, the others dead. All were in good condition, no traces of injury or lingering illness, she said, and she and other turtle preservationists suspect red tide killed them.

"We can't say that for sure," she said. "We'll find out soon and we'll know more. But this is 10 times the normal strandings and red tide is the only thing out there."

Recent reports of a deepwater layer of trapped red tide organism are being blamed for killing coral, shellfish and fish in waters from 3 to 30 miles offshore of the coast in the Gulf of Mexico from Sarasota County to north of Clearwater.

A sick or injured turtle or a dead one washing up ashore is called a stranding. There are a few every season, but nothing nearly as calamitous as the current epidemic of sick and dead turtles. The strandings were spread up and down the Island.

The Island is not alone in its turtle strandings. Pinellas County has had 35 sick or dead turtles on its beaches in recent weeks. Sarasota County has had 33 since the first of of August, according to Mote Marine Laboratory's turtle program, compared to nine last year.

According to Mote, there have been 72 dead turtles found in Sarasota County since June. On average, from June to the end of August, 13-23 have been found in the past 12 years.

Mote has the three living strandees from the Island, Fox said - one Kemp's ridley and two loggerheads, and they show signs of prospering. Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, which Fox heads, handles the dead ones, burying them after tissue samples are taken to determine its cause of death.

She said Dr. Debbie Fauquier and Jim Grimes of Mote are taking samples of liver, lungs and anything else that acts as a filter.

Fox and others believe the turtles are victims of food poisoning from sea life contaminated by the severe outbreak of red tide for months in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's like humans getting food poisoning," she said. "We lie in bed all day and gradually recover. Turtles just lie there too, but they can't lift their heads to breathe.

"I waded out to help one that was exhausted, and it just laid its head in my hand so it could breathe. This was the most despairing week I've spent with turtles."

Life does go on, though. Twenty-five nests that were covered with water during Hurricane Dennis have hatched, with 442 hatchlings making their way to the Gulf in the past week to bring the total hatch so far to 792.

That's a very low survival rate, Fox said, "but we may be lucky to have that many. All of those nests were covered with seawater by Hurricane Dennis, which could have drowned them all."

Additional information may be obtained by calling Turtle Watch at 778-5638.