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Dead Sea Turtles on Mississippi Shores Cause Concern for Gulf Coast Woman and Federal Agencies

By Rhonda Miller | Published 05 Apr 2011 09:21am | comments
A dead sea turtle found by Shirley Tillman April 2 in Waveland, Mississippi.

Federal agencies are investigating why 58 dead sea turtles have washed up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since March 15. MPB’s Rhonda Miller walks with a Gulf Coast woman whose beach stroll this past Saturday was interrupted by the scent of death.

Under a blue sky, with sun sparkling on the water, Shirley Tillman is taking photos on one of her regular morning walks. She’s lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for more than 40 years. Today she’s in Waveland in a quiet section of beach and marsh grass. Suddenly, she starts sniffing.

"I don’t see anything but I can smell something," she says. "Rot."

In black rubber boots and jeans, she walks through the marsh grass. It doesn’t take her long to track down the smell of rotting animal.

"Found one. I knew I smelled something," Tillman says. "It’s a sea turtle."

Tillman is upset because since she found the first dead turtle in January, it’s become all too common. She can’t say for sure the dead animals are because of the oil spill. But she doesn’t think it’s coincidence either.

"It's heartbreaking. I mean, I'd never seen a live one before, and now just to see dead ones, it's sickening," she says.

Since March 15, she’s found eight dead turtles. She and her husband, Don, have developed a procedure. They note the location and get GPS coordinates from their Smartphone. Don Tillman pulls out a small notebook and records the details.

"A mile east of the Silver Slipper Casino, give them a general area..they can start riding this way until they come up on the GPS coordinates," Don Tillman says.

Then Shirley calls the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport to have the turtle picked up for testing.

"Hey, yes this is Shirley Tillman. I found another turtle, it’s either a loggerhead or Kemp Ridley," she says. "OK, it’s about one mile east of the Silver Slipper in Hancock County. You need the coordinates? 8-9 point 2-8-4..."

What the Tillmans are finding on the ground is confirmed by Connie Barclay, spokesperson for the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"In the past few weeks we’ve seen an increase in sea turtle strandings in the Northern Gulf, primarily in Mississippi," Barclay says.

"Since March 15 there have been 58 confirmed strandings of sea turtles in Mississippi," Barclay says. "We have confirmed 13 sea turtle strandings in Alabama and 14 sea turtle strandings in Louisiana. These turtles have been found dead."

Spring is the typical time for sea turtle strandings, sometimes because of a run-in with a fishing boat or bio-toxins in the Gulf.

"But the sharp increases of recent days are really of concern to us," Barclay says.

Extensive analysis is being done, including testing for poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which are air pollutants that can come from burning oil or other fuels," she says.

All causes of death, including petroleum, will be investigated, when possible, based on the decomposition of the sea turtles," Barclay says. "The full GI tract is examined for product or evidence or oil ingestion, and additionally, all turtles are being carefully examined for signs of external oil as well."

She says the tests take time.

"There are probably going to be some litigation issues involved with BP and the government so, of course, all of these tests have to be done very carefully and there has to be a chain of custody process followed," Barclay says.

Shirley and Don Tillman leave a marker at the dead turtle. They wonder how many more haven’t been found. With their nine grandchildren in mind, the Tillmans would like to see results of the testing - soon.

"If it’s affecting the sea life, the turtles and the dolphins and all, they’re so close to us humans, is it affecting the little kids an’ all who play in the water, too?", Shirley Tillman asks.

In addition to the sea turtles, 44 dead dolphins have washed up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since January first. And when you include the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Louisiana, 147 dolphins have washed up since the beginning of the year.

NOAA officials say if any of the tests on the dead animals suggest danger to humans, the information will be given to the public.


A dead sea turtle found by Shirley Tillman April 2 in Waveland, Mississippi.



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