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Aug 18, 2010 9:04 PM by Alison Haynes

First oiled turtles released in Gulf after rehab

CEDAR KEY, Fla. (AP) - The first rehabilitated turtles oiled by
BP's massive leak were released back into the Gulf of Mexico on
Wednesday, with scientists saying that animals taken in by rescuers
- including birds - appear more resilient than first feared.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the oil
crisis for the government, helped release the 22 oiled sea turtles
about a mile off the coast of Cedar Key, Fla., an area unaffected
by the spilled crude. They were the first oiled turtles found in
the Gulf and rehabilitated.
"I think it's emblematic of us starting to look forward in the
recovery," Allen said, smiling as he released some of the turtles.
"This is a very pristine environment. This is their natural
habitat."
Even though oil spill rescue crews have brought more sea turtles
and birds to shore in the month since BP capped its broken well
than the previous month, wildlife officials said both kinds of
animals have suffered less damage than originally projected.
Rescuers have taken in 444 oiled turtles that were found alive
since April 30, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration. They found 522 turtles dead, though they've only
confirmed that 17 of those had oil on them.
Government researchers have largely declined to discuss the
turtles' causes of death.
Virtually all the live turtles - all endangered, most of them
the rare Kemp's Ridley species - taken in have recovered quickly.
Oiled turtles are scrubbed clean with dish soap and other cleaners,
tested for health problems and fed at the centers. Once the turtles
regain their strength, they are returned to the wild.
"We haven't seen any of the problems that we thought we might
see" with the turtles, said veterinarian Brian Stacy of the
National Marine Fisheries Service and the University of Florida's
College of Veterinary Medicine.
Many young birds were spared because the worst of the oil came
in at the start of the nesting season rather than when chicks were
learning to fly.
In all, about 1,933 oiled birds have been rescued, while 1,942
oiled birds have been found dead since the well blew April 20. "It could have been a lot, lot worse," said Mike Carloss, a
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist who has
been doing rescue work.
By comparison, about 20,000 African penguins were rescued and
washed after the MV Treasure tanker sank in 2000 off the coast of
South Africa. In 1989, 1,604 rescued birds were brought in after
the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and 801 survived, according to
the International Bird Rescue Research Center
With the Gulf spill, there have also been some unexpected
problems.
For instance, young green sea turtles have such delicate front
flipper bones and get so upset at being handled that one may have
broken a bone by wild flapping, said Cara Field, an Audubon Nature
Institute veterinarian in New Orleans. Another one's bone may have
been broken during capture or transport.
In the past few weeks, she said, red blood cell counts fell
below normal in about 20 turtles - possibly a delayed reaction to
the heavy oil that coated them in June. Two others had such sudden
and drastic drops in the number of red blood cells that they needed
transfusions but haven't had problems since, she said.
Field said about half the turtles have had elevated enzyme
levels that could indicate anything from stress or an artificial
diet to liver trouble or muscle damage. Since the turtles are
vigorous, gaining weight and have normal blood work and lung
X-rays, continued captivity would be more stressful than keeping
them for observation, she said.
"The vast majority are doing quite well," Field said.
Still, plenty of uncertainty remains.
Wildlife officials warn that problems could surface later
because it is unclear how much oil might still be in the Gulf.
Allen also cautioned that while progress is being made, it could
take years to determine the long-term impact.
"No, it isn't over," Allen said. "It's going be over in the
well head shortly, and the source of the oil will be stopped. But
as we know, there's a lot of oil that's not accounted for."

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