Researchers anxious to learn more about loggerhead turtle movements and behavior are evaluating a new solar-powered satellite tag that could record data for months, or even several years.Two such tags have been deployed along with traditional battery-powered satellite tags during a turtle tagging project off the mid-Atlantic coast.
A research team of the Northeast Sea Turtle Collaborative tagged 20 juvenile and adult loggerhead turtles in mid-Atlantic waters during the May 19-25 project, including deploying two of the solar-powered test units.
The team included Heather Haas, Henry Milliken and Eric Matzen from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)'s Woods Hole Laboratory, as well as researchers from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center and the Coonamessett Farm Foundation (CFF). The research team worked from two commercial sea scallop vessel, the 91-foot F/V Kathy Ann and the 85-foot F/V Ms Manya, both based in Barnegat Light, New Jersey.
The project was funded through the sea scallop industry's research set-aside program awarded to CFF, providing an opportunity for the research organizations to collaborate in this year's project as they have in previous tagging work.
“Each year has been different, not just in the length of the cruise and the weather conditions but also in what we’ve been able to accomplish," Haas said. “No other groups are tagging turtles offshore in the Mid-Atlantic region, making the project unique and also a positive example of NOAA, industry and non-governmental organization (NGO) collaboration. All partners, including the captains and crews of the commercial fishing vessels, have brought key pieces of the puzzle to the table, and this teamwork makes it work.”
“This year we attached two solar-powered tags in a pilot project for the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which develops many of the tags researchers use on sea turtles, seals, and other marine animals,“ Haas said. “It’s exciting to be part of this development effort.”
Battery power often limits the amount of data researchers can obtain from tags, but a solar powered tag could last months, or even years, and be able to transmit vast amounts of information about the turtle's activities over time. The battery is charged when the tagged turtle is on the surface in sunlight.
All of the 20 juvenile and adult loggerheads captured were outfitted with satellite-linked data loggers, or tags, which provide detailed information about turtle behavior at sea, especially in commerical fishing areas where juvenile loggerheads are the most common incidentally-caught sea turtle in fishing gear. The information gathered from the data loggers can be used to define where the turtles are most at risk of encountering fishing gear. Loggerheads, like all sea turtles found in U.S. waters, are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The turtles were live captured using a large dip net and brought to the F/V Kathy Ann for assessment, sampling, and tagging. Each turtle was fitted with a satellite tag as well as with more conventional flipper and PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags, and then released back into the ocean. The various tags will enable researchers to document the movements and behavior at sea of each individual animal.
Blood samples for a number of studies were collected from all the turtles, which were also weighed and measured while on the deck of the F/V Kathy Ann. The largest turtle weighed 346 pounds. The team also scanned each turtle for any existing internal or external tags from other studies, took its internal temperature, collected skin and other biological samples for genetic and health assessment studies, and attached identification tags to each flipper.. Since adult turtles grow slowly, the tags could remain on them for many months, and possibly several years.
Ther biological samples collected on the cruise will also be analyzed to assess sex and foraging behavior. Some of the results will be available within weeks, while other findings will require months to produce. The tags, however, work from the time they are attached.
Over the past five years, 92 loggerhead turtles in the mid-Atlantic have been tagged with satellite data loggers in similar tagging studies: 30 in 2012, 25 in 2011, 15 in 2010, and 2 in 2009. All of the tagged turtles can be tracked on the NEFSC’s turtle tagging web site at: http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/turtles/turtleTracks.html
"This year we went out earlier than we usually do so that we could t tag and collect biological samples from turtles in different geographic areas. Our aerial surveys spot loggerheads from coastal waters to far offshore,” Haas said. “We have been trying to learn more about the spatial and depth behavior of turtles. This year we are also trying to determine how much population structure exists, or if the populations are all mixed. The satellite tagging information and the biological samples we have collected should provide us with important data to help answer this question.”
Haas and colleagues spotted many turtles early on, but weather did not cooperate. “It was cold this year so we moved further south, but the storms in late May off the mid-Atlantic coast hampered our efforts,” Haas said of the 2013 tagging effort. "With most of the tags deployed, we decided to conserve our resources and end the cruise a little early given the bad weather."
The 2013 turtle tagging efforts were supported by the partner organizations and from the sea scallop industry's quota catch set-aside that funded the research.
Data collected for the tagging project are widely shared and are provided to the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (AMAPPS), the most extensive survey ever of marine protected species along the U.S. East Coast, covering waters from the coast out to 200 miles offshore. The AMAPPS studies are funded in part by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
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