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Sea turtles are starting to get hooked in Hampton Roads

sea turtle being taken care of by Virginia Aquarium workers
An endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle that was caught at a local fishing pier this spring. (Photo: Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center)

This story was reported by Katherine Hafner from partner station WHRO News. 

Each spring, the coastline off Hampton Roads fills with sea turtles traveling north to feed in the Chesapeake Bay for summertime.

And each spring, many get stuck on the fishing hooks of unsuspecting local fishermen.

Since April, seven turtles have arrived at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, which runs a program to find and save the hooked creatures.

It’s a much higher start to the season than usual, said Susan Barco, senior scientist with the aquarium’s stranding response team.

“Usually our first turtle comes in the first or second week in May, and often there’s a little bit of a pause before we get a whole lot more animals,” she said. “But this year we got a pretty steady number of turtles coming in early on.”

All seven have been of the Kemp’s ridley species, mostly juveniles. They are critically endangered but the second most common species in Virginia after loggerheads, Barco said.

Young Kemp’s ridley turtles seem to particularly be attracted to bite at the baited hooks as they move toward the bay, she said. They’re likely coming to the area hungry after spending the winter in areas with less food and swimming a fairly long distance.

This year, the aquarium’s naming the hooked turtles after cereals. Cocoa Pebbles, Trix, Kix and Special K are among those who’ve come through so far.

The aquarium plans to publish a scientific paper this summer documenting trends they’ve seen with hooked turtles.

sea turtle being taken care of by Virginia Aquarium workers
Workers at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center care for an endangered turtle that was caught accidentally by fishermen. (Photo: Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center)

Different types of hooks don’t seem to make a difference, for example, but the baits do. Fewer tend to go after bloodworms or artificial bait as opposed to shrimp, squid or cut-up fish.

The Pier Partner Program began in 2014 after the aquarium noticed a spike in reported hooked turtles. Officials wondered if it was a true spike or if the aquarium had simply gotten more exposure after a big dolphin die-off the year before.

They decided to better document the issue by working with anglers at local piers.

They also had to learn more about removing the hooks from the turtles, which Barco said can be a tricky process. It can involve cutting into the turtle’s neck, and requires sedation.

Because some medical instruments can’t get at such a hefty hook, they often have to use heavy-duty tools like pliers and bolt cutters.

“It's a combination of MacGyver-ing and using veterinary technique to find the best way to remove hooks that causes the least harm to the turtle so that we can release it as quickly as possible.”

Hampton’s Buckroe pier and Norfolk’s in Ocean View are particular hotspots, as well as the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier at the Oceanfront. The recent seven all came from those three areas.

“There are people in pretty high density on piers that are essentially the equivalent of throwing candy out in the street,” Barco said. “It’s, from a turtle’s perspective, free food.”

If you hook a turtle while fishing, Barco said the worst thing to do is drag it to shore on a line. She recommends using a lift net.

Even if you feel like you can remove the hook yourself, she pleads with anglers to call the aquarium’s stranding response team. The turtle’s wound could get infected and officials also want to collect as much data as possible on the issue.

The Virginia Aquarium stranding response team can be reached at 757-385-7575.