Aquarium gets ready to tend Gulf's turtles

As the Gulf oil spill ensnares marine animals, the staff at the National Aquarium and the state's wildlife veterinarian are preparing for a life or death situation.

For the aquarium, the phone may ring and someone will ask for help recovering animals or if some of its pools can be converted to intensive care units for injured sea turtles. As part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the aquarium is housing four healing turtles from natural mishaps here and in New England that it would like to release in June to make room for Gulf turtles. Other facilities in the network are making similar plans.

Meanwhile at the Oxford Laboratory in Cambridge, Dr. Cindy Driscoll is on standby for a call that would send her south to help scientists determine how animals died.

Though hundreds of miles away, the spill is on the minds of Marylanders whose specialized skills will be needed if the manmade disaster overwhelms forces in place along the Gulf Coast.

"If they need experts, we'll send experts," said Dr. Brent Whitaker, the aquarium's deputy executive director of biological programs. "As hospital beds fill up in the southeast, I anticipate we'll see a greater need for our services. I suspect it's just a matter of time before we'll be called on."

While birds and fish in the path of the slick are in danger, all five species of sea turtles found in the Gulf are listed under the Endangered Species Act. An environmental disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon spill could deal a fatal blow to recovering species, scientists fear.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented 278 sea turtles stranded by the spill. Many were dead and 40 are at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans to be washed and cared for.

As part of the stranding network, the National Aquarium works with the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., to help injured sea turtles mend.

"Our goal is to rescue, rehabilitate and release," said Whitaker. "We can take six to 10 animals at a time. Now our challenge is, how can we gear up quickly to do more. This is an extraordinary event and it's going to require extraordinary efforts."

Federal authorities said late last week that they have adequate capacity right now, given the small number of live stranded turtles recovered, and have four facilities on standby in Florida.

"As the needs arise, we will call upon people based on the skills we need and the issues we are dealing with in the Gulf," NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen said.

Scientists fear the turtles could contract pneumonia from inhaling toxic fumes or suffer ulceration of their gastrointestinal tracts from ingesting oil. Tainted habitat could deny turtles food sources, leading to starvation. And nesting areas — critical this time of the year to the species' survival — could become fouled.

"All of the effects are horrible," said Whitaker. "Which ones we will see, we just don't know."

Driscoll said she was asked two weeks ago to be on standby by NOAA. She anticipates she might be called on to spell colleagues as the spill's aftermath lingers.

After a pipeline ruptured and dumped 140,000 gallons of oil in the Patuxent River in April 2000, killing hundreds of animals, Maryland officials realized "you can't have the same people doing [necropsies] 24/7," Driscoll said. "They may have enough people in the Gulf right now, but that may not be true when the animals start coming in and keep coming in."

Even though the public might assume the dead animals were the victims of the spill, "they all need exams by competent people. There's lots of reasons why animals die and oil is only one reason," she said.

If the number of contaminated animals becomes overwhelming, experts on the scene will have to make heartbreaking triage decisions based on which ones stand the best chance of recovering and which ones have the best chance of reproducing.

Whitaker said part of the challenge will be to create pools to handle turtles of all sizes and with different injuries. While smaller turtles, like Kemp's ridley, are the size of a dinner plate, loggerheads can run several hundred pounds. And rehabilitators don't want to put recovering animals in the same tank as newly infected ones.

That puts a strain on budgets. Aquariums will have to increase saltwater production and waste removal systems and find a way to boost supplies of turtle food. Huge leatherbacks, for example, dine almost exclusively on jellyfish. Some turtles will probably require slings and constant monitoring to keep them from drowning while they recover.

"We'll have to raise money quickly to upgrade our system and staff," Whitaker acknowledged. "We don't know if it will be necessary, but given the fragile nature of the species, we don't have the luxury of not being prepared."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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