It’s sea turtle season, and although they’re mostly protected at local beaches, the turtles are still at risk for injury — and death — at fishing piers.
On June 10, three highly endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were hooked on fishing lines at piers, according to Linda Mataya, leader of the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol. Two were hooked at Apache Pier near Kings Road in Myrtle Beach, and one was hooked at Cherry Grove Pier near North Ocean Boulevard in North Myrtle Beach.
According to Mataya, this problem has been happening for years.
“It seems to be a very prevalent problem on the piers,” she said. “Last year I took down three sea turtles in a week’s period to the sea turtle hospital, and I had two more that I released in the same period, so it seems to be an ongoing problem.”
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During the summer, Mataya said she gets around five or six calls regarding hooked turtles every month, but some cases are undocumented.
“We do not know how many sea turtles get hooked that go unreported,” she added. “That’s another problem.”
Mataya wrote in a Facebook post that she had to take one turtle hooked Saturday to the Sea Turtle Care Center in Charleston to undergo surgery to remove the hook from its throat. X-rays showed another hook lodged in its stomach.
The turtle’s name is Ucee, and although he was in critical condition, he survived the operation and is “doing great,” according to Danielle Raub, marketing communications director at South Carolina Aquarium.
Although it isn’t intentionally done, Mataya wants people to know what to do in case they hook a sea turtle.
“The most important thing is not to reel the turtle in and pull it up on the pier using the fishing line,” she said. “If [the hook] is in its throat or if it’s down further, it’s gonna pull its esophagus out, it’s gonna pull its throat out, and if it’s even down further in its stomach, it’s going to damage its stomach.”
Mataya recommends using a drop net to safely pull a hooked turtle up on a pier. She said there are drop nets available on both the Apache and Cherry Grove piers, along with signs giving detailed instructions on what to do if you hook a sea turtle.
“Whether you’re a tourist out enjoying a day on the pier and doing some fishing, or whether you’re an avid fisherman that goes on the pier very often, if you do hook a sea turtle, don’t panic,” Mataya said. “A lot of people know that sea turtles are protected by the federal government, so if they hook a sea turtle they panic and they just cut the line because they don’t want anybody to know about it.
“That’s the worst thing they can do because if they cut the line and it’s a long line, the sea turtle can get wrapped up in the line, get its flippers wrapped up in the line, and drown,” she said. “And you’re also leaving a hook in its mouth or in its throat, which can lead to serious infection or can prevent the turtle from eating. So the best thing that we ask is that you notify the pier management right away and that you also call our hotline number.”
Special hooks can also help make it more difficult for turtles to get hooked, according to Kelly Thorvalson, conservation programs manager at South Carolina Aquarium.
“So there are a few things we encourage folks to do,” Thorvalson said. “One would be to use circle hooks, not J hooks or treble hooks, and really especially the treble hooks. Because they are essentially three hooks on one and it’s very difficult to remove that from the esophagus of a sea turtle who swallows it.”
The two hooks removed from Ucee were both J hooks, said Beth Nathan, aquarium marketing and sales assistant director.
Thorvalson wants to remind people it’s nesting season for sea turtles, and that “it’s really important to keep the beaches healthy and clean of debris and trash.”
Anyone that accidentally catches a sea turtle can call the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol at 843 213-9074.
Michaela Broyles, 843-626-0281, @MichaelaBroyles