Sampling involves pulling two 60-foot trawl nets behind the boat for 30-minutes. Each time the nets are pulled up after a drag, excitement on board starts to build, especially if there’s a sea turtle in tow.
On this cruise, a Kemp’s ridley is caught on the first trawl. Once it’s safely on board, researchers work quickly to process it to reduce as much stress on the animal as possible. The team, made up of research biologists, technicians and graduate students, move around the boat with ease, grabbing gloves, measuring tools and vials while calling out information that’s recorded on a data sheet.
They first scan the turtle to make sure it hasn’t been tagged before assigning it a unique ID. They then collect blood samples, measure the carapace, administer the pit tag and place the animal in a harness so it can be weighed. The last step is the release, which involves gently lowering the turtle over the side of the R/V Georgia Bulldog using the harness.
“Kemp’s ridleys, by and large, are really easy to process,” said Arendt. “They’re healthy looking, they’re clean. Plus, they’re small, so it’s really easy to work them up.”
He adds, with a hint of pride, that their record processing time is 14 minutes.
By the end of the day, the team processed eight sea turtles, seven Kemp’s ridleys and one loggerhead.
“We’re about three-quarters of the way through our sampling period and we have 34 Kemp’s ridleys so far,” said Arendt. “Two thirds of our Kemp's for 2017 were caught this week, which amounted to almost half of the 2016 total.”
This long-term project has generated a wealth of data that’s been shared with over 25 collaborators, studying everything from sea turtle DNA to testosterone to blood chemistry. The cruises also train graduate students in veterinary or marine science programs in practical field experience that will help prepare them for their careers. Arendt explains that bringing in more partners and providing workforce development opportunities is important for getting the most bang out of the taxpayer dollar.
“We have the skill sets, funding, and federal and state permits to safely capture and handle the sea turtles, so that enables the collaborators easy access to animals that they wouldn't otherwise be able to study,” Arendt said. “In return, we get important information on sea turtle health and foraging behavior that the collaborators have the funding and skills sets for, so it’s win-win.”
Additionally, Arendt has the R/V Georgia Bulldog and her crew, who have decades of trawling experience and strong connections to the research community and the commercial fishing industry.
“The Bulldog crew is a great interface between science and industry to help disseminate our results and generate support for our endeavors,” said Arendt.