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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.