Dozens of Stranded Loggerhead Turtles in Emergency Housing by Texas State Aquarium Wildlife Rescue Program

two ladies handling sea turtle
credit Texas State Aquarium

CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS – The Texas State Aquarium (TSA) implemented emergency housing to care for numerous loggerhead sea turtles stranded in South Texas. Due to the number of sea turtles in need of rehabilitation, the Aquarium activated, for the first time in its rescue history, an unprecedented contingency plan and relocated its sea turtle rescue operations to a building owned by the Port of Corpus Christi, located 1 mile away from the current Rescue Center.

Since July, the Aquarium has cared for more than 40 loggerhead sea turtles and is currently housing 27 large loggerhead sea turtles that were relocated to its rescue program from other rescue facilities in the region. Each of these sea turtles weigh around 150 to 200 pounds each and were found either injured or exhibiting an indication of ill health or abnormal behavior.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is grateful to the Texas State Aquarium and Port of Corpus Christi for stepping up quickly with a creative solution” said Mary Kay Skoruppa, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sea Turtle Coordinator for Texas. “With approximately 125 sick loggerheads needing care in Texas since April, our partner rehabilitation facilities soon reached capacity. Without the quick action from the Aquarium and the Port, we would have been faced with transporting loggerheads to out-of-state facilities, a costly operation that would have put additional stress on the turtles.”

The number of loggerhead sea turtles the Aquarium is caring for surpassed the available space and capacity previously designated for this effort. Since April, more than 400 loggerhead strandings have been recorded in Texas, which is about three times more than any previous year for this region. Affected turtles have been underweight or emaciated, and an underlying cause has not been determined. In July, the TSA Wildlife Rescue Center received 17 loggerhead sea turtles from the Amos Rehabilitation Keep – ARK at UT Marine Science Institute (ARK) in Port Aransas, Texas. Initially, the Aquarium adapted the current Wildlife Rescue Center’s pool to fit as many loggerhead sea turtles as possible. In September, more sea turtles arrived and due to limited space in the current rescue center, 13 patients were transported to the Aquarium’s main campus.

To make space to rehabilitate the sea turtles, rescue staff repurposed a dam flood control system, originally designed to protect the facility from hurricane flooding, into a sea turtle habitat. Loggerhead sea turtles are aggressive towards each other and must be housed in separate spaces to remain safe. Due to the size and space needed to house each sea turtle, the Aquarium adapted the flood control system into two 20 ft x 70 ft pools that can hold up to 24 sea turtles each. The rescue team utilized dividers to create individual spaces of approximately 60 sq. ft. per sea turtle.

In mid-September, representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Padre Island National Seashore, and NOAA Fisheries reached out to the Aquarium and asked to house more stranded loggerhead sea turtles that needed to be relocated from other rehabilitation facilities to the Aquarium. At this point, the Aquarium had completely run out of space and reached out to the Port of Corpus Christi, who immediately leased a 26,000-square-foot building, known as the Striker building, to the Aquarium.

loggerhead turtle
Rescued loggerhead Credit Texas State Aquarium

On September 29, 2022, the Aquarium’s operation and rescue staff began to set up dam flood control systems that hold approximately 40,000 gallons of water in the Striker building to accommodate all the sea turtles. As of October 13, 2022, the Aquarium’s rescue team moved all the rescued loggerheads from the current rescue center and the Aquarium main campus over to the Striker building.

“The Aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue Team’s unique ability to adapt and respond to emergency events of this scale is remarkable.” said Texas State Aquarium President and Chief Executive Officer, Jesse Gilbert. “We are glad we were able to assist our partners at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries in the caring and housing of this vulnerable species, and we can’t wait to see these sea turtles swim off into the Gulf and continue on their journey in life.”

So far, the Aquarium has released 12 rehabilitated loggerhead sea turtles and will continue to rehabilitate and care for the remaining turtles until they are healthy enough to be released back into the Gulf of Mexico. This unusual sea turtle stranding event shows the importance of having an adequate space that can respond to wildlife emergencies of this nature. The 26,000 sq ft new Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue at the Texas State Aquarium will be crucial for wildlife conservation efforts and will increase the Aquarium’s capacity for wildlife rescue and response. The New Center is set to open to the public in early March of 2023.