Together for turtles Fishing debris hurts sea turtles. UF and partners are teaming up to help.

Words and photos by Stephenie Livingston/UF News

Twenty-five miles west of Key West, an oasis for sea turtles was ravaged when 2017’s Hurricane Irma dragged spiny lobster and stone crab traps across the seafloor and sent many crashing into the island’s formerly quiet, pristine beaches.

In late June, an unlikely team of two University of Florida sea turtle conservation biologists and 30 Florida Keys fishers set out to remove traps from the Marquesas Keys: uninhabited, mangrove-covered islands that sit in the shape of a turtle shell around a 2-mile-wide lagoon thought to be formed by a prehistoric meteor. The islands’ beaches are important to sea turtle mothers, while the habitats surrounding them — coral reefs and seagrass beds — provide prime foraging and developmental habitats for turtles. At nearly the height of sea turtle nesting season in the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge, the traps, ropes and buoys created dangerous obstacles for sea turtles and other wildlife on and around the Marquesas and nearby Woman Key.

Trap ropes on driftwood in the Marquesas Keys.

It’s no secret that fishers and conservationists don’t always see eye-to-eye, but UF’s Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research and the Florida Keys Fishermen’s Association agreed the traps had to be cleared for the safety of wildlife. Sea turtles can become entangled in lost and abandoned traps and drown or lose their flippers to the ropes. Hatchlings can also become trapped on the beach by these obstacles, making it impossible for them to reach the ocean before they die from scorching heat.

In a collaborative effort coordinated by the Reclaim Our Coasts (ROC) program, scientists and fishers, state and local governments joined to remove nearly 26 tons of fishing gear and other debris, restoring coastal habitats wrecked by Irma. ROC is a program created and managed by UF’s Archie Carr Center that connects people to increase and improve sea turtle nesting beaches and ocean habitats in Florida.

UF conservation biologist Cathi Campbell, a former physical education teacher who dropped everything about 30 years ago to conserve sea turtles, helped remove one of the first traps from the sand. Beneath it, she found a dry, translucent sliver of sea turtle shell remains. The bones were likely nearby. They needed to work fast — fresh tracks suggested another female turtle successfully navigated through a mess of rope to make her nest the night before.

She was one of the lucky ones.

Campbell holds a piece of sea turtle shell found among the fishing debris.

Before Irma, hundreds of sea turtles died or lost limbs each year from entanglement in derelict fishing traps. But the storm underscored the threat traps and their ropes pose to sea turtles and habitats all along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines.

Acting with sea turtles in mind, what could this bare-bones team of people from very different walks of life accomplish together in just five days on remote islands at the southern tip of the nation?

ROC collaborated with the Florida Keys Fishermen’s Association, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)), Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for guidance and permits. Several other organizations, including Florida Sea Grant, Inwater Research Group, and Monroe County, also assisted the project. This work was supported by Disney Parks through the Disney Conservation Fund as a part of the Connect to Protect program that provided funding to protect and restore habitats critical to 10 at-risk animals.

Campbell and fellow conservation biologist Cynthia Lagueux co-direct ROC, working with local organizations toward common conservation goals all along Florida’s coast. Research by the Archie Carr Center over the past 30 years has increased knowledge of how important long, quiet, naturally clean stretches of beach are for sea turtle reproduction, especially in Florida where 90 percent of sea turtles in the United States nest. Before bringing their experience and knowledge to UF, the pair founded and directed a sea turtle conservation program in Nicaragua for 17 years.

They met in 1988, when Campbell took a vacation from her job in North Carolina to volunteer with a sea turtle conservation program Lagueux was directing in Costa Rica for UF’s Archie Carr Center, part of a joint effort with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (now the Sea Turtle Conservancy). She never looked back.

Decades later, their faces still light up when they see a sea turtle on a license plate, mural, or a necklace around someone’s neck — and especially in the wild.

To prepare for the Marquesas and Woman Key cleanup, Campbell and Lagueux walked miles around the islands to evaluate the damage with Sue Schaf, an Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. They marked turtle nests with bright pink flagging tape so they wouldn’t be disturbed during the cleanup. Traps, ropes, soda bottles, a propane tank, and even part of a pontoon boat blocked their path. Schaf held up rope caught between a trap and a mangrove, “This could clothesline a turtle.”

Dozens of traps dot the sand on Woman Key and the Marquesas Keys. A mangrove is shown here growing through a trap as it's taken over by nature.

Schaf has lived in the Florida Keys since 1976 and calls the Marquesas her sanctuary. “I keep moving down the Keys to find that last bastion that hasn’t been built up,” she says.

She hopes it will stay that way, not just for her sake, but for the turtles.

It’s likely the turtles that dig their nests on the islands were hatched on the same beaches. For female hatchings, the beach of their birth — the air, the sand, the water — is imprinted on them forever. Turtles who nest in the Florida Keys likely come from a long line of females — their mothers, grandmothers and sisters — who all entrusted new generations to its shores.

If nesting beaches become so obstructed that turtles are deterred from laying eggs where their instincts tell them to, they may go elsewhere or be forced to drop their eggs in the ocean, lost for good.

But even if their beaches of origin are full of traps, they will try out of instinct: the islands are in their genes.

Staff at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, have cared for sea turtles found injured or sick in the Keys for more than 30 years. They typically only see one or two entangled turtles each year because by the time these turtles are found, they’re usually already dead. But the hospital has seen an uptick in these cases this year, performing amputations on three turtles since Irma, said hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach.

Trap rope is removed from a sea turtle's flipper at The Turtle Hospital. Photo courtesy of The Turtle Hospital

If only one flipper is amputated, an adult sea turtle can usually go on to live a handicapped, but relatively normal life. Those who lose more than one flipper are unlikely to survive. Zirkelbach talked about a patient, a green turtle named Brandy, whose front flipper was wrapped so tightly with trap rope it had to be amputated. The front flippers harness the green turtles’ power. It allows them to move in and out of the water and dig their large, deep body pits that look like a small bomb exploded in the sand.

Brandy was successfully released, and 10 years later she still returns to the Keys to nest, pulling herself onto the beach and building her nest with only one front flipper.

Fisherman George Niles’ family has lived in the Florida Keys for more than a century and even have a local bridge named for them. Fishing is in his blood, he says. So, naturally, he’d seen storms before Irma. But that didn’t make it easier. There was four feet of water in his home, and he lost a third of his lobster traps and two months of the best production time. For six weeks, Niles searched for his traps. Some were recovered. 1000 were lost.

Most lobster and crab fishers in the Keys have similar stories. Recovering lost traps washed up on the Marquesas and Woman Key was a challenge: rocks and shallow waters surrounding the islands make it difficult for large fishing boats to get close, the state and federal permit process needed to remove anything from the protected area can be daunting, and the financial cost — boat gas and labor — is high.

Most fishers, weary of what may come next, are only now returning to normalcy. And Niles said cleaning up the islands is part of the recovery, but the fishers needed help. That’s where ROC came into play.

It was scorching hot on Woman Key, where the cleanup began with hammers, shovels, knives. The fishers removed traps at a rapid pace without any mechanical equipment to make it easier. Out on the water, a normal trap full of lobsters weighs around 60 pounds. But the naturally buried derelict traps were full of sand and seagrass, weighing about 300 pounds each. It took two or three people to pull a trap from the sand.

They didn’t stop there, removing tires, bottles, balloon string and other washed up discards: a plastic rainbow of wildlife threats glaring in the sun.

Cynthia Lagueux (left) and Cathi Campbell work alongside Florida Keys fishermen to remove fishing debris.
Campbell makes her way through the shallow water and rocks to Woman Key.

The scenic island backdrop masked the trash, and a host of dangers. As he collected trash from the beach, stone crab fisherman Chris Boniface talked about a friend who, with good intentions, picked up plastic trash mixed with seagrass — a hypodermic needle stuck into his friend’s hand. To reach the islands’ shore at low tide, one must wade across slippery rocks. There’s a native plant that causes a nasty poison ivy-like rash if you get too close. Occasionally, large gray shadows drift curiously in the blueish-green water close to shore — a black tip shark or maybe a bull shark. Then, there are the scorpions.

“I want to be out here. It’s my mess, too,” said Boniface, though none of the traps belonged to him. He uses bully nets to catch crab.

Campbell and Lagueux shoveled and pulled traps on and off shore right along with the fishers. They all joked about how they could easily survive on an episode of Naked and Afraid if it were filmed on Marquesas or Woman Key.

“There’s plenty of fishing line,” joked fisherman Stephen Ray. “We wouldn’t starve.”

Just off shore, Campbell and Lagueux were joined by Schaf and Sarah Steele Cabrera, a research technician with UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History. They searched the ocean floor for “ghost” traps — detached from their buoys and mostly invisible from the surface. Appearing like apparitions beneath the waves, ghost traps blend with the sea floor and are hard to find. Even after you spot one, it’s easy to lose track of it while you situate the boat above it and jump in to pull it out. The women pulled one of the ghost traps up to see if anything was alive inside. After breaking open the trap, several lobsters and a lone stone crab poured out of it.

On shore, some traps still hold the bleached white shells of lobsters and crab. No one knows how many lobsters and crab died inside the lost traps as a result of Irma. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe.

Cabrera and Schaf release a stone crab from an inwater derelict trap.

By the end of the week, 705 traps were removed from the islands and surrounding ocean habitats, along with trap rope, buoys and other debris. Over 100 traps were reclaimed by their owners. Along with over four miles of beach cleared, more than 25 square miles of ocean habitat were cleaned, including many ghost traps.

Of course, traps are not the only threat to sea turtles and their habitats. Many nesting beaches are being developed, while others disappear into a rising ocean. Meanwhile, turtles’ foraging grounds are suffering the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. Maintaining sea turtle populations will require collaborations and partnerships similar to the Marquesas project.

Ultimately, such collaborative approaches could lead to beaches free of traps, to plastic-free oceans, and to a future where wild sea turtles thrive in healthy habitats.

Fisherman Octavio "Bimba" Nodal walks barefoot across rocks at low tide on Woman Key with a pile of fishing debris on his shoulders.
Created By
UF News


Stephenie Livingston

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.