September 3, 2008
San Gabriel River Draws Endangered Sea Turtles
By Kelly Puente
LONG BEACH - A colony of green sea turtles lurking in the San Gabriel River? Scientists say it's true.
Biologists believe a colony of seven to 15 green sea turtles was likely lured by the warm-water discharge from a power plant on the San Gabriel River.
But how the federally listed endangered animals have come to live so far from their tropical haunts in Mexico and Central America is a mystery.
The Aquarium of the Pacific and the National Marine Fisheries Service are conducting a joint study this fall to find out more.
"There's a lot we don't know right now," said Dan Lawson, a local biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We don't know exactly how many there are. We don't know if they're residents or migrating from somewhere else."
On Friday, a diver rescued an injured green sea turtle from a cooling channel serving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Haynes Generating Station, just east of Pacific Coast Highway.
The 45-pound juvenile had a fish hook caught in its left flipper and is being treated at the Aquarium of the Pacific for broken flipper bones, said Perry Hampton, aquarium director of animal husbandry.
The new guest has been dining on a buffet of clams, fish, shrimp and squid, Hampton said.
"He's eating, which is a good sign," he said. "Our goal is to eventually release him back into the wild."
The 21-inch-long turtle is believed to be about three to five years old. Green sea turtles can grow up to 4 feet in length and can live more than 70 years, Hampton said. While young, they're omnivorous but older turtles dine exclusively on marine plants.
"It's very rare to see a colony this far north," he said.
Lawson said the urban turtles could be strays from another colony of sea turtles discovered in the 1970s near the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. power plant in San Diego Bay.
Until recently it was thought that the San Diego colony was the farthest north. Fisherman have actually been spotting sea turtles in the San Gabriel River for the last 30 years, Lawson said.
But the number of sightings seems to have grown in recent years.
"I've seen turtles every time I've gone down there in the last four month," Lawson said.
Lawson has also noticed that the turtles range from juveniles to much older animals. Green sea turtles need warm sand to lay their eggs, so they're likely laying their eggs along the Mexican coast, he said, but that's just a guess.
Scientists will be tagging the animals later this year to track their possible migration route.
"We want people to know and appreciate that we have an endangered species right here in our own backyard," Hampton said. "It's something to appreciate about our local waters."
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