In the 35 years James Holland has been fishing the back waters of the South Brunswick River, he had never seen a sea turtle bite a baited hook — that is, until Sunday.
Holland was fishing with his daughter when she reeled in a critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle that had gone for the bait at the end of her line.
Researchers who monitor the annual sea turtle nesting season along Georgia’s coast said the occurrence was no surprise to them. Instances of anglers reeling in sea turtles have actually been on the rise recently as the number of turtles making their way to Georgia’s coast seem to have been increasing over the past several years.
Turtle nesting season lasts through the summer months. The first official sea turtle nest appeared this year on Cumberland Island.
Anglers are urged to be careful when removing a hook whether from threatened loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridleys or any other species of sea turtle.
For Holland, seeing the sea turtle was a new experience in an otherwise underwhelming day of fishing that netted only four whiting.
“I’ve caught freshwater turtles like that before, but never a sea turtle,” Holland said. “I’ve never seen one on the hook like that.”
With a hook stuck in the turtle’s mouth as if it were a fish, Holland, a staunch environmental advocate, said he was relieved to see the hook was easily removable without causing any serious harm to the turtle.
Holland said he carefully removed the hook, checked the turtle for injuries and released it.
Mark Dodd, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist who monitors the annual sea turtle nesting season, said no numbers are kept on how many anglers are reeling in sea turtles, but the number of incidents is on the rise.
“It sure seems that way anecdotally,” Dodd said.
He said through the summer, when the turtles are swimming in Coastal Georgia waters, he gets numerous reports weekly of turtles being caught on hooks at popular fishing piers.
“If that is the case, we want them to call us,” Dodd said.
Especially call DNR if the turtle has swallowed the hook, he added.
Terry Norton, veterinarian and director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, said just last week he had to sedate a turtle to remove a hook that had been swallowed. Simply trying to pull the hook out without the proper expertise can be fatal, he said.
“If the hook is not visible, the fisherman should not try to remove it,” Norton said.
Like Dodd, he said there seems to be more and more instances of turtles being caught with hook and line these days.
“I’m sure it happens a lot more than we realize,” Norton said.
Even if the hook is visible, Norton said caution is necessary when removing it because important parts like the turtle’s esophagus can easily tear. He suggested if there is any difficulty at all in removing a hook to call DNR.
Dodd is working on some new signs to place at fishing piers and boat launches in Coastal Georgia to inform people how to handle a situation where a sea turtle is caught with hook and line.
The signs will include suggestions like using barbless, non-stainless steel hooks that are likely to be easier to remove, keeping the turtle out of direct sunlight by covering it with a wet towel and not lifting it out of the water by the line and hook. Dodd said he also hopes to place baskets anglers can use at the piers to lift both fish and turtles.
In any situation, Dodd urges anglers to call 800-2SAVEME for guidance and to report the catch.