Juvenile green sea turtles are washing up on local beaches — dead or in distress — at an alarming rate this year, experts say.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has picked up more than 129 dead and 93 living sea turtles since Feb. 3, more than the total number of dead specimens collected during all of 2015.
“We’ve already done a year’s worth of work,” said Adrienne Cardwell, the aquarium’s manager of sea turtles and aquatic biology programs.
Crews have been responding to calls about the stranded young turtles and patrolling Pinellas County’s northern beaches for the past two weeks, searching for the aquatic reptiles as water temperatures dropped — leaving many turtles with already compromised immune systems in trouble.
Because sea turtles need external heat to regulate their body temperature, cold water can cause decreased heart rate and circulation, lethargy, shock and even death.
Many of the green sea turtles also contracted a virus in the wild called fibropapillomas, which can cause them to grow cauliflower-shaped tumors on their soft tissue and eyes.
Strong winds have pushed the weak, endangered sea turtles — some of which are unable to feed themselves — toward shore.
“These animals were already having issues, so the cold weather sealed the deal with them,” Cardwell said.
Experts don’t know how the virus, similar to the herpes virus in humans, is transmitted, and there is little conclusive research on the subject, Cardwell said.
The virus is becoming increasingly problematic among the local sea turtle population.
The cold weather mostly has affected turtles off Pinellas and Pasco county shores, where temperature drops have been more severe than in southern parts of Florida.
On Wednesday, Clearwater Marine Aquarium teams retrieved one dead and eight live sea turtles. Earlier this month, researchers picked up 22 dead and 13 live turtles in a single day.
The distressed animals are brought to the aquarium on Island Estates, along Clearwater’s Memorial Causeway, where they are evaluated and treated with fluids and medicine.
Many of them don’t make it through the first night, Cardwell said.
Some of the turtles recently recovered by Clearwater crews have been taken nearly 400 miles to a veterinary hospital in Marathon, in the Florida Keys, for rehabilitation and eventual release.
Cardwell said the aquarium is running out of resources to care for the distressed turtles and is seeking donations to help buy medical items such as gauze, rubbing alcohol and Rubbermaid bins to hold the turtles during their care.
Because of the influx, the aquarium has exhausted its sea turtle budget for this year.
Joe Widlansky, a sea turtle biologist with the nonprofit Sea Turtle Trackers, which monitors nesting on St. Pete Beach and Shell Key, said he has been dealing with similar problems along the coast in southern Pinellas County.
The juvenile green sea turtles he has found have weighed between four and 20 pounds. Last week he turned over two live turtles to the aquarium, but he also has found dead ones.
He recalled a significant statewide cold-stun in 2010 but expected the overall die-off to be lower this year because southern Florida largely has been unaffected.
“It’s pretty bad. Hopefully it’ll be over really soon with this nice weather warming up the water,” Widlansky said. “We just hope every year by March it’s over.”
The green sea turtle primarily nests along Florida’s east coast but can be found feeding on sea grass in shallow waters along the Gulf Coast.
Boaters and beach-goers should be on the lookout for stranded sea turtles or turtles floating on the surface of the water, Cardwell said. If they dive beneath the surface they likely are fine.