A partnership giving animals a second chance

Coast Guard District 5 NewsThe Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team recently released a 315-pound Loggerhead turtle, rescued with help from members of Coast Guard Station Cape Charles, Va.

The stranding team contacted Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads watchstanders for assistance getting to the turtle named 25, aka Big Boy, who was found entangled in a crab pot line off the coast of Cape Charles, May 22.

“We usually work with the Coast Guard in the case of emergencies, especially when we get a report of a live animal that is entangled, and the Coast Guard can get out there quicker than we can,” said Christina Trapani, a stranding information specialist with the team.

The Coast Guard assists stranding teams across the country as part of a strategic plan called Ocean Steward. The plan was made to provide the country’s marine protected species the protection necessary to help their populations recover to healthy, sustainable levels.

“One of the ways that we can help marine protected species is to strengthen our relationship with the stranding teams throughout the country,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Saunders, a living marine resources officer with the Coast Guard’s 5th District. “A lot of training that the Coast Guard does with stranding teams is actually on the job. We’ll typically get called up for assistance then we’ll coordinate with them.”

In order to reach a deeper understanding and to perform better responses, members from local stranding teams visit with Coast Guard members hold lectures and bring along tools common to protected species related missions, for demonstrations.

Three stranding team members visited Coast Guard Station Portsmouth, Va., Oct. 20, to train 60 members.

“A lot of today’s training was about policy and covering what the stranding team does, such as observations and initial response,” said Trapani. “I also covered some of what has happened in the past. Not just with us, but with other organizations that help entangled animals.”

“In Virginia there are mainly three types of assistance that we do,” said Saunders. “We will at times get reports of animals getting lost, entangled in some fishing gear or struck by a boat. We’ll go out and try to recover the animal, bring it to the stranding team and allow them the opportunity to rehabilitate it. Other times, we’ll bring the stranding team to the animal and all back to shore, as was the case with Big Boy.”

Veterinarians at the aquarium’s Marine Animal Care Center examined Big Boy and had to amputate his left front flipper because of his injuries. After nearly five months of rehabilitation and adapting to swimming without his flipper, veterinarians decided Big Boy was ready to return to his natural habitat.

“This was a success story,” said Saunders. “Unfortunately, there are times when we come across deceased animals.”

When that is the case, the stranding team’s training covers the benefits to responding to a report of a deceased animal.

“I gave the disentanglement part of the lecture,” said Susan Barco, a research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. “I also helped with the hands-on necropsy end of things – discussing how we take apart animals when they wash ashore, and we try to find out what killed them, how they lived, whether they had parasites, injuries or diseases.”

“These are still important to the overall mission of the Coast Guard in supporting the stranding team because the deceased animals tell a story of about how they died,” said Saunders. “A lot of times that story ends up resulting in federal regulations that will protect the species in the future.”

“It’s amazing as to how a little change in fishing gear can make a big change in the survivability of a particular species,” said Saunders. “We have seen this with sea turtles and the integration of turtle exclusion devices in shrimp trawlers. We got there by analyzing deceased turtles.”

Whether it’s responding to a report of a deceased animal or one in distress, the training and response done in partnership between the Coast Guard and stranding teams is essential to the protection of living marine resources.

“The Coast Guard is the ideal port partner to participate in any search and rescue activity, whether it’s an animal or a human that we are trying to rescue, we train on this, and we have really refined the way we do it over the years,” said Saunders. “In the sector command centers they have the ability to use technology and lay out search patterns that are really well defined. We know the capabilities of our people and our platforms, so we know how to best use these tools to help guide where we look in order to find these species when we get reports that they’re in distress.”

“We are happy to help the Coast Guard any time because the Coast Guard helps us. It’s a great relationship, and we’re happy to help,” said Barco.

“The goal for all this is to ensure that the species that we see today are able to survive for future generations,” said Saunders. “So that our kids can appreciate them the way we do now.”

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