Emotions run high with sea turtle protection

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, there live several rescued sea turtles of various species. Among them is a 257 pound loggerhead turtle named Big Mama.

Big Mama swims around comfortably in her personal pool and has regular visits and rubdowns from staff. She is around 40 to 50-years-old and was brought to IMMS about a year ago.

Big Mama only has one good flipper. The other three were bitten and damaged by sharks, so she will spend the rest of her life being cared for by IMMS staff.

While the loggerhead will no longer swim in gulf waters, she can still reveal a lot about the environment from which she came.

"The sea turtles, the dolphins, these are the very obvious species," said IMMS Director Moby Solangi. "When they start changing and we start seeing animals dying in large numbers, we start worrying about the whole ecosystem."

US environmental agencies are concerned loggerhead turtles like Big Mama could need more protection, especially in waters along the west coast. In the Gulf of Mexico, loggerheads are considered "threatened," which is a step down from "endangered."

This comes after NOAA blamed fishermen for a spike in sea turtle deaths over the summer.  NOAA has since reevaluated their findings, but emotions on the subject still run high.

"It's an emotional subject because it affects the livelihood of a lot of people. It is also the lifestyle of a lot of people. People want regulations based on sound scientific studies. They don't want people on one side or the other, making judgments and not knowing why these judgments were made," said Solangi.

IMMS has been contracted by Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to study turtle species in state waters. Solangi says the data gained could settle arguments about the local concerns about protection.

"We are satellite tagging them. We are analyzing the cause and death relationships, and we're going to continue doing this until we get data. So that good management decisions and the results can be indisputable," said Solangi.

There are no reported regulation changes in the works for state fisheries.

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