When Dr. Jose Luis Crespo told me he had received a call from a fisherman in the port, I immediately guessed that someone had accidentally captured a turtle. We hopped into the car and took the short drive to the docks to assess the animal and see if it was a candidate to be brought to the ARCA turtle recovery facility at the Oceanogràfic.
The fact that the stranding network and turtle recovery team receive these calls through an emergency number — 1-1-2 — is a testament to the amazing relationships they have built with members of the community. Dr. Crespo and the local fishermen he works with care about the well-being of these animals and are taking steps to ensure there are viable populations of the sea turtles for future generations.
The challenge for the fishing community is that the turtles often appear completely healthy with they arrive at the surface in their nets. Assuming the turtle is healthy, well-intentioned fishers return them to the water immediately. Unfortunately for the turtle, in many cases dissolved nitrogen from their bloodstream has come out of solution and formed air bubbles under their shell. These air bubbles result in a severe condition and impair the animals’ ability to breathe.
When turtles arrive at Oceanografic, they are assessed to determine the scope of potential injuries and are then placed into a decompression chamber, if necessary, where the air bubbles are reabsorbed into the bloodstream and the turtle can make a complete recovery. In this case, Turtle 243 was diagnosed with decompression sickness and after one day in the decompression chamber all the gas bubbles were removed.
This turtle’s rescue and recovery is a great reminder of how conservation champions can often look different than we expect. Members of the local fishing community are passionate advocates for marine biodiversity and this rescue was a great example of how these individuals are concerned about the health of the Mediterranean and the animals that live there.
Some would argue that the fishing community is to blame for the decline in sea turtles locally. Recent data from WWF international supports that claim, highlighting that 15,000 turtles are captured annually by bottom trawl fisheries in the Mediterranean. The good news is steps are being taken to improve this situation, with more fishers using turtle excluder devices on their gear and fishers are contributing to research and saving animals and sending them to our ARCA program.
Everyone in the region is brought together by a strong dependence on the Mediterranean for seafood, transportation, recreation and employment. Even if all fisheries challenges were addressed today, the sea turtle population would continue to face significant pressure from marine debris and nesting habitat destruction. Protecting this magnificent species takes a collective effort between organizations such as Oceanografic, as well as community partners and fishers.
While the progress may seem slow at some times, working together is resulting in positive change. As for Turtle 243, it is almost fully recovered and scheduled for release in the next few weeks. Every animal — and every effort — counts.
The ARCA Turtle rescue program is part of the stranding network, made up of Conselleria d´Agricultura, Medi Ambient, Canvi Climatic i Desenvolupament Rural, Universitat de València y Oceanogràfic.
Dolf DeJong is the vice president of conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. He is currently on assignment at the Oceanografic Aquarium in Valencia, Spain, supporting the staff of Europe’s largest aquarium as they expand their conservation and education efforts. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a world leader in engaging the public through education on the wonders of aquatic life. We aim to inspire individuals and organizations to make conservation-minded choices for the betterment of our blue planet.