Parasites disable multiple sea turtles, warm winter waters in Gulf to blame

By: Brittany Bedi
May 31, 2017

PANACEA, Fla. (WCTV) – The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab is bustling with visitors this summer.
Workers are also busy taking care of a few sea turtles who are having trouble swimming.

Two loggerhead sea turtles are at Gulf Specimen’s hospital. Both are female and have buoyancy issues. One turtle is improving, but the right side of her shell still floats when she swims.
Another loggerhead is still in quarantine. She was found with several barnacles growing on her shell. Caretakers say she may have been floating in the Gulf for a long time.

Other turtles were also rehabilitated and released throughout May. Most of the turtles also had buoyancy issues. The turtles were rescued in various areas – from Little St. George Island to Steinhatchee.

Cypress Rudloe is the director of Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. He says the buoyancy problems stem from a parasite that causes a buildup of gas in the turtle’s stomach.

"They get to the point that they can't hunt down for food and swim down,” said Rudloe. “So they lose energy too."

The turtles still under the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab’s care are taking medication in hopes that the turtles can eventually pass the gas on their own. If not, they will undergo an operation to remove the gas.

Parasites can be common in the Gulf. Some turtles could get them because the parasite was in a larvae stage in the turtle’s prey.

A lack of cold water in the Gulf during the winter is allowing parasites to flourish.

"Because we're having warmer winters, we're not getting that kill of parasites each year," said Rudloe.

Sean McGlynn is the laboratory director at McGlynn Laboratories. He specializes in water quality. He believes that a warming climate will continue to impact local freshwater and saltwater ecosystems.

"All the bacteria are ten times greater with every five degree difference [increase] in temperature,” said McGlynn. “It increases logarithmically."

While turtles are one part of the local saltwater ecosystem, decreasing numbers in each species could have a large impact.

“At the end of the day it isn’t the commercial fishermen, or small-scale stuff," said Rudloe. “It’s the crashing water quality and the water itself is getting worse.”

Rudloe and the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab are working to educate people about the human impact on marine life in hopes to help turn a grim outlook around.

Staff at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab expect more infected turtles to be brought in through the summer as more people boat on the Gulf.