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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Florida abuses Sea Turtles by allowing experiments on endangered hatchlings

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

By Staci-lee Sherwood

When you think of an endangered species you assume this status brings full legal protection from hunting, poaching, harassment. The laws that govern how species listed as endangered vary and enforcement runs from non existent to minimal. Leatherback sea turtles are listed as critically endangered on a global scale because their population has crashed about 90% from what it had been historically.

Leatherbacks feed on giant jellyfish found deep in the ocean. Plastic, especially plastic bags, floating on the water look very much like small jellyfish. Eager for a snack they end up consuming the plastic which is a by-product of processing oil. We know from necropsies done on hatchlings of all six sea turtle species their stomachs are filled with micro plastic. All sea turtles species face enormous obstacles to survival some fairing a bit better while others like the Hawksbill and Leatherback are critically endangered. That listing is not taken lightly and means the species is on the brink of being lost forever without immediate aggressive human intervention. It should never for any reason allow for a pass for scientists to experiment on them but in Florida that’s exactly what goes on.

In 1966 the Animal Welfare Act was signed into law with the intent of protecting animals used in laboratory research. This was the tale told to the public but it is not the whole truth. Revised over the years it has failed to live up to its promise. The law as written fails to protect 95% of animals used in research which include rodents, birds, mammals and reptiles. Even worse this law comes under the purview of the Dept of Agriculture an agency will little to no concern for animal welfare. The fact this law excludes all animals except for a few warm bodied mammals, and knowing about this exclusion for the past 54 years, shows the real intent was not animal welfare but a political move for supporters to get votes.

Think back to 1966 when the protests against our engagement in Vietnam were raging, the country was reeling from a presidential assassination and dealing with the counter culture. Politically, Congress was in need of a law that made them appeal to voters and appear less out of touch with their constituents. A law without funding and enforcement is little more than a piece of paper with words. Many laws are more window dressing than oversight and for sea turtles they have little protection against abuse. Reptiles have been left out in the process of garnering legal protection for other species.

In 1973 another landmark bill was passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The law was designed to list those most likely to go extinct without immediate human intervention on their behalf. The ESA was the gold standard and what every animal welfare group points to as reference, but as is often the case most times it is not enforced. The law was suppose to be a way to save a species, remove them from the list once their population hit sustainable levels with their habitat intact then go on to the next species in need of help. Due to bureaucratic failure it’s become little more than a filing system of those most in need not receiving the help.

In 2005 a study was conducted by scientists at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) located in Boca Raton, Florida at their lab at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center also in Boca Raton. While the study was to see how newborn hatchlings faired just after entering the water the methods used are highly questionable. Keep in mind scientists are not activists or truly concerned about animal rights; think of all those that work in research labs for the drug, tobacco and agriculture industries.

Scientists will justify their experiments in the name of using science to help save an endangered species but how are they really doing that? No one ever asks for the proof to be quantified nor is much evidence really produced because it can’t be. Looking at the long list of cruel redundant and inane tests animals in labs are subjected to it quickly becomes obvious most have little to do with saving a species or helping humans. Take this study ‘Estimating Predation Levels and Site-Specific Survival of Hatchling Loggerhead Seaturtles (Caretta caretta) from South Florida Beaches’ by Christie L. Whelan and Jeanette Wyneken

Newborn hatchlings were removed from their nest before it was time for them to naturally emerge and crawl to the ocean. They were kept in Styrofoam, again not naturally occurring in nature, overnight where they got no food and then put on the beach without benefit of digging out of the nest on their own. Once these hatchlings dig their way out of the nest chamber they have a one time burst of energy to crawl to the ocean and swim as fast and far as they can. This energy is nature’s design to help them navigate a treacherous journey of predators biting at them but for most hatchlings death comes within a day or two of birth. Mortality runs high as they are food for many hungry predators.

Instead of following the ‘do no harm’ mantra of doctors it seems that does not exist for scientists. They had to have known that burst of energy no longer existed once they took it upon themselves to remove the hatchlings so they could observe at their convenience what happened to them. For true in the field data all they had to do was sit in a kayak with infrared lights, so as not to disorientate the hatchlings, and observe nature in its natural state. On any given night dozens of nests hatch in Boca there was no need to remove the hatchlings. I would say the data collected from this experiment is tainted but you won’t find anyone in the sea turtle industry speaking up because they all pretty much participate in this. Click here for the study

This is from the study

In 2008 another study was done to test how flashes of light affect the eyes of hatchlings. While this may appear to be an important study look at the methods and ask how does this truly save an endangered species? This was condoned by the state Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) considered by most to be one of the most corrupted agencies in the country and the federal agency US Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) often having a hunter at the helm running things. Here is the study Visual spectral sensitivity of hatchling loggerhead (Caretta caretta L.) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea L.) sea turtles, as determined by single-flash electroretinography Kenneth W. Horcha*, Judith P. Gockeb, Michael Salmonb and Richard B. Forward.

The scientists involved admit these are endangered but then go on to explain how they were removed from the nest and sacrificed for their experiments. The whole point of being endangered is to avoid this type of exploitation. There doesn’t seem to be any justification for this experiment other than for the salaries and grants of those involved. ‘Because both species are endangered worldwide, our permit required us to use hatchling loggerhead and leatherback turtles remaining inside the nest for 72h after the majority of the turtles had emerged. These subjects would not survive without human intervention….They were sacrificed for experiments within 12h after capture. ‘ Two witnesses on separate occasions admitted hatchlings died from experiments but they did not come forward nor would any non profit group.

The FWC has received tens of thousands of reports showing how light pollution affects hatchlings. What is the purpose of this study? While it may be true those still in the nest 3 days later would likely not live they would and could have helped other hatchlings survive by having predators consume them leaving the healthier hatchlings to live another day. If one truly wants to save a species this type of study would never have been conducted or approved. This only serves to show how callous and fraudulent the whole rigged system is. At no point was genuine animal welfare ever considered a factor.

Copy and paste for the study

The title of this study says it all One must wonder what really drives all these studies on such an endangered species that is so difficult and high maintenance to keep alive? As is often the case when you peel back the outer layers of a story the real agenda emerges. The study mentions high levels of bacteria in the coastal water but fails to reveal the sources which include dumping human sewage, often untreated, directly into the ocean, oil spills, spraying herbicides into freshwater and leaky septic tanks all which make their way into all our waterways including the ocean. One must speculate if a scientist was that concerned about the dangers of bacteria they would work to fix the problem of dumping into the ocean but no sea turtle scientist or group is focused on that nor is FWC or USFWS.

Gumbo Limbo runs on a skeleton staff, most of the sea turtle crew is gone by 9am. That leaves just a small staff to manage the lab which as stated in the article needs daily water changes and special care due to leatherback vulnerability. If the lab program is anything like the morning survey program run by Nova Southern University, which is mostly run by students with a couple of paid staff, there would be concern for the quality of care given. Most college students and part time staff aren’t usually known for going above and beyond the call.

This photo included in the article shows professor Jeanette Wyneken in St Croix. So much is wrong with this photo starting with the flash used which blinds the sea turtle much as it does humans. Perhaps their lack of knowledge or concern for the species they draw a salary from is why they did so many studies on the affects of light on their eyes. No true conservationist would ever do this to a sea turtle let along a nesting mom who’s nocturnal. Also of note the article is published on the non profit site for the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation. In 2009 it was reported in the Sun Sentinel they were involved in a tax evasion scheme involving donors of boats and promises of tax write offs. The circle of fraud and lack of ethics runs deep.

It should be noted that the elite IUCN is of no help since both Salmon and Wyneken, married couple, sit on their Marine Turtle Specialist Group and would not be motivated to add protections which would make it harder for them to conduct experiments. After contacting the chair of this committee, Roderic Mast, in September 2021 it was apparent relationships with colleagues ruled over true animal welfare. Despite having state and federal legal protection on paper none exists in reality and few are motivated to change the status quo. I contacted the National Anti Vivisection Society who said that reptiles had no protection from this type of abuse in research labs. Very few even know these experiments take place.

The leatherback sea turtle is protected as an Endangered species by the Federal Endangered Species Act and as a Federally-designated Endangered species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule, and by Florida's Marine Turtle Protection Act (379.2431, Florida Statutes).

Florida Statutes (F.A.C. Rule 68E-1)

68E-1 : MARINE TURTLE PERMITS - Florida Administrative Rules, Law, Code,...

restrict the take, possession, disturbance, mutilation, destruction, selling, transference, molestation, and harassment of marine turtles, nests or eggs.

Ironically a study was done asking the ethical question about experimenting on endangered species. The conclusion was correct in its assessment that there is no justification for this. Too often human gain is masked under the ruse of ‘science’ or ‘jobs’ when the truth is personal gain. The answer seems obvious but here it is for those scientist who demand putting their own needs first

Each tank has a leatherback hatchling tethered

Captivity alters behavior and therefore the science is inaccurate. How is this saving them?

Many science experiments are needed and have validity but these fail that litmus test. Special care and thought must be a factor when deciding to remove a species from their natural habitat and sacrifice them. Most concerning is the fact none of this actually saves the species. If any of these people were genuine in that pursuit they would use their influence with FWC to have them fix the light pollution problem. This has been known for decades and has killed millions of hatchlings.

The dumping of sewage and chemicals into the water is another life threatening problem but you won’t see any of these people doing anything about that either. Instead they only ask for special permits from FWC to do what most of us know to be immoral. Gumbo Limbo, where FAU has there lab, is also not without questionable practices. Click here to read how they jeopardized a nest of hatchlings for a photo op with a celebrity.

Animals cannot speak for themselves and are defenseless against the daily onslaught of human harassment, even if seemingly well intentioned. There is no legitimate justification for removing and experimenting on any endangered species. Ask yourself why so many work so hard to keep this going…

Emails to US Fish & Wildlife and NOAA were not answered and the IUCN sent this form response back “Thanks for reaching out about your concerns. The Marine Turtle Specialist Group is a global volunteer network of sea turtle specialists. We are not a permitting agency or legal authority. All sea turtle research in the United States requires permits. The permitting agencies in Florida include NOAA/NMFS, USFWS, and FWC. We recommend you reach out to those agencies to discuss your concerns.” They seem just as unconcerned when this was brought to their attention in 2021 and did not respond back when it was pointed out the very agencies who are suppose to enforce the laws are the ones issuing permits for the abuse.

Keep in mind the people that make up the elite Marine Turtle Specialist Group for the IUCN are supposedly those at the top in their field. These are members who work for government, big non profits and chair departments in universities, yet making a phone call on behalf of a species they profess to want to help is out of the question. Remember that next time you read that someone is part of the IUCN or a big non profit and ask what exactly are they doing to help/save a species? Where is the proof they contribute anything other than what serves themselves.

How Leatherbacks and all hatchlings should be.... free from harm whatever the excuse

Words to live by

If you would like to help change the law and guidelines that allow this abuse please contact the following :

FAU Board of Trustees 561.297.3450

IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group email & member list

Any media (newspaper/tv/radio) that might be interested in exposing this abuse

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McKenna Grace Fisher
McKenna Grace Fisher
11 mar 2022

~ Sister all I can say after reading this is that Politics and humans need to leave nature alone for the most part ~ These studies read like a si fi novel in some ways ~ It's not the way to handle endangered species ~ There's really no one to trust aside from grass roots orgs who make no money from the govt. ~ Thank you for this piece ~ Well done ~ xx ~ mgf

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McKenna Grace Fisher
McKenna Grace Fisher
12 mar 2022
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~ Sister we are not of this planet anymore are we ~ How much can we know before everyone else learns too ~ I will still Never Be Silent ~ xx ~ mgf

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