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Dr. Charles Innis discusses rescuing endangered sea turtles

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

WHO

Dr. Charles Innis

WHAT

Innis is director of animal health at the New England Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation facility in Quincy. Along with Connie Merigo, Stranding Program manager for the aquarium, he oversees rescue efforts to save endangered sea turtles suffering from significant injuries or serious medical conditions. Over the past 20 years, hundreds of these turtles have been released back into the wild.

WHERE

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Thursday at 7 p.m., Innis and Merigo will discuss their rescue work at the Aquarium (1 Central Wharf, Boston). The lecture is free and open to the public.

Q. What work goes on at the Quincy facility?

A. One, we house the aquarium’s display collection of animals, when necessary, in a safe and healthy environment. Two, we do rescue-rehab work, the majority of which is dedicated to sea turtles on the US endangered species list.

Q. Why turtles and not, say, seals and dolphins?

A. It’s an institutional decision. For a long time the Aquarium was doing a lot of marine mammal rehab. We still respond to mammal strandings, but we’re no longer hospitalizing them here. They get transferred to other facilities.

‘Getting hit by a boat or caught on a fishing line, being killed for food or having their eggs harvested: all have a major impact on premature turtle mortality.’

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Q. What about the dolphin strandings we’ve been seeing on Cape Cod?

A. We used to be the primary responders. But as other groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare have grown their rescue capacity, we’ve been able to separate that function out.

Q. What endangers these turtles?

A. In general, it’s humans. Some species have been around for 100 million years - and did really well until about the last 200 years. However, when the reproductive strategy of adult females is interrupted, that’s a big problem. Getting hit by a boat or caught on a fishing line, being killed for food or having their eggs harvested: all have a major impact on premature turtle mortality.

Q. With the oceans warming, why is hypothermia a threat?

A. It’s speculative to talk about global warming influencing turtle populations. But, for example, changing ocean current patterns may have juvenile turtles coming farther north and staying longer, then being subject to sudden temperature drops. More of these cold-stun events have been happening recently.

Q. Where are you finding these sick or injured turtles?

A. It depends on the species. For the Kemp’s ridley turtle, we get most hypothermia cases in November and December on Cape Cod’s north shore. Larger species like the leatherback tend to get hit by boats or tangled in fishing ropes, so we find them wherever people are actively fishing.

Q. How big is the Kemp’s ridley turtle population?

A. We’re not sure. By the 1980s, we think there were only one to 2,000 animals worldwide. Due to governmental protection, it’s now maybe 30,000 to 40,000 animals. Since males never come on land, though, we can’t accurately count them.

Q. What can you do to save these turtles?

A. Simple cases can often be recovered in a week or so. But turtles that are questionably alive are tougher. We’ve made a lot of progress based on analyzing blood chemistry. We can intubate them, give them intravenous drugs to improve heart and lung function, monitor their blood sugar and potassium levels, those sorts of things.

Q. Basically, you run a turtle E.R. operation?

A. To some extent. I always feel weird comparing ourselves to human hospitals, but the principles are pretty similar.

Q. How many turtles do you treat per year?

A. It ranges from about 25 to 150. But in November and December we might get 50 in one day. In 2011, we took in about 50 turtles altogether, 35 of which should be released eventually.

Q. Is that low number encouraging or discouraging?

A. Good question. We don’t know. It could mean these turtles got out of here soon enough and are happily swimming in warm water. Or it could be there weren’t many born that year and something bad happened to them. I don’t like to speculate.

Q. Is your lecture’s primary goal to raise public awareness - or raise money to help rescue efforts?

A. I’d say education and conservation are both important. Kids like turtles. Adults do, too. Compared to snakes and frogs, people are really into turtles. Some species won’t be around if we don’t take their conservation seriously. Just visiting the aquarium and buying a ticket helps what we do.

Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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