JACKSON, Miss. >> Ten young sea turtles nursed back to health after swallowing anglers’ hooks are headed back into the Gulf of Mexico.
The animals released Saturday are among 213 endangered Kemp’s-ridley turtles brought this year to the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies after taking bait at piers, marinas and other coastal Mississippi fishing spots.
The nonprofit’s president and executive director, Moby Solangi, said more than 200 people gathered on a clear Saturday morning on the beach in Gulfport to watch the release of the turtles.
Sixteen more are still healing, says the Gulfport nonprofit’s president and executive director, Moby Solangi.
He said this year’s total is likely to outstrip last year’s because warmer water will keep the turtles near the coast longer.
Mississippi anglers have reported hooking a total of 240 turtles so far this year compared to 259 all last year, said Allison Garrett, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division.
Solangi said he thinks the turtles have fewer crabs and oysters available for food, noting that the Commerce Department declared a federal emergency for those two species in 2012 based on freshwater damage during the floods of 2011. The impact of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf is still under study by various scientific groups.
However, state data show “decent” crab populations from 2012 on, Garrett said.
Melissa Cook, a NOAA Fisheries marine biologist and Mississippi’s stranding coordinator, said baby and juvenile Kemp’s-ridleys naturally spend their time in inshore waters. “I think they would be in this area anyway. There just happen to be fishing piers so there is basically free food,” she said. “Although it comes at a price.”
Cook said she believes more turtles are being hooked close to shore, but the statistics also could reflect greater public awareness of the animals and many that might once have been cut from lines are likely now being brought in for help.
Few people reported hooked sea turtles in Mississippi until 2010, when the BP oil spill focused attention on the northern Gulf and its wildlife.
In 2010 and 2011, a total of 60 were reported to NOAA Fisheries. In 2010, the number of strandings rose from 35 to 315. Scientists said most probably drowned in shrimp trawls. The number of reported hookings rose from 22 in 2011 to 196 in 2012, even as strandings dipped to 282 and 162.
There also could be more turtles than usual. There were excellent hatches from 2009 through 2012, Cook said.
And some are second-timers. “A lot of these turtles are repeat captures. We have turtles caught as many as six times,” she said.
Kemp’s-ridleys tend to hang around one area. “In many cases, they will come back to the exact same fishing pier. It’s an easy opportunity to be caught again,” Cook said.
Since 2012, about 700 turtles have been hooked at Mississippi fishing spots while about 500 have been found dead or debilitated along the shore, according to NOAA Fisheries statistics.
Mississippi probably has the best statistics of any state, partly because its 44-mile coastline is small, Cook said.
Signs at nearly 100 public fishing spots, bait shops and marinas ask anyone who hooks a turtle to call the stranding line. The signs also explain how to handle the animals, starting with netting the turtles or “walking” them to shore rather than reeling them out of the water.
Almost all turtles brought to the Mississippi institute can be rehabilitated, Solangi said. He said about 80 percent of the hooks are high enough in the throat to be removed with keyhole neck surgery.
The three biggest and healthiest of the turtles being released this weekend were fitted with transmitters so scientists and marine science students at three high schools can follow their migration.
Associated Press reporter Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.