A Conversation With Robert DiGiovanni

Robert DiGiovanni. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.

The founder and chief scientist of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society talks about the threats facing sea turtles, the importance of public outreach and why you should never touch an injured turtle on the beach.

Can you talk about the sea turtle beach walk, organized by the South Fork Natural History Museum, for Saturday?

So what we’re doing is a sea turtle walk beach monitoring program to try and educate the public about what animals they might see in our waters, what to do if they encounter an animal, the different reasons why a sea turtle might wash up on our beaches or even knowing to report healthy animals that they might see when they’re boating. The essence of the program is to create better stewards of the environment so they’re aware that these animals are here and the threats that face them, whether they be natural or human-induced.

What are some of the dangers that sea turtles face now through the fall/early winter? 

The first danger that we have, which is the overarching one, is really the awareness that these animals are here…The second one is looking at the other threats. We break them up into two categories: one is considered natural, and the other is considered human-induced… These animals, being that they’re cold-blooded, if they don’t leave our waters soon enough in the fall they can suffer from a condition called cold-stunning, which is like hypothermia for us. When that occurs, the animals tend to float and then wash up onto our beaches. And if there aren’t people out there walking the beaches on a regular basis to encounter these animals, and knowing enough to call the hotline number, the (631) 369-9829 number, these animals will end up dying from cold-stunning…Then we would want to train the public about the perils of marine debris because all summer, our team is out responding to turtles that wash up dead on the beach. So far this year, we’ve encountered six loggerhead sea turtles, five of which had evidence of boat strikes and one was hooked on a fishing hook.

Are there any misconceptions people have about sea turtles around Long Island?

We’ve been trying to understand what people think or know about turtles for a long time now…. I think that over the years — I’ve done stranding work for many years — and the most commonly encountered comment that I hear is “I had no idea that these animals are here.” So I think that’s the biggest misconception is that when they look at turtles and… even when it comes to whales and dolphins, they’re not aware that these things are commonplace in our backyard…I don’t think that people have an understanding that this area is a very critical area for their development. But then I’ll take it to the next level and say that a lot of what we know about turtles here is from strandings or cold stuns. That’s what AMCS is working on, is building a program to look at wild populations and trying to understand how are they using these habitats.

So, are you doing research on that right now? 

We have a pilot study that we’re hoping to get underway in late August to start capturing some turtles and doing a health assessment on them and some tags. So, we’re working out the final logistics on that and weather-permitting, we’ll be able to get some pilot study data this year with the hopes of spinning the project up full scale next year.

How often do you guys do beach cleanups and public outreach events?

Last year, we did about 120 outreach and beach cleanup events, a combination of both. We try to do, on average about two a month and we try to move around the island doing them in many different places because the one thing that is surprising to people is that these animals are occurring all around Long Island, so Long Island Sound, the bays, Great South Bay, the Peconics, New York Harbor and all those places. So, we’re trying to find partners that’ll work with us so that we can go and do these cleanups at all different parts of the island.

And one last question for you: What should people do if they see a sick or injured turtle on the beach?

Well, if they see a sick or injured turtle on the beach, they should call the hotline number (631) 369-9829. They should stay back from the animal. If they see any marine mammal or sea turtle on the beach, they should always stay back from the animal…Call the hotline, let the people who answer the hotline know…what I would ask is that if the public even sees animals that they think are healthy, if they happen to be at the beach and they happen to see a turtle swimming by, or you’re out on a boat, to report that sighting to Atlantic Marine Conservation Society at our sightings hotline which is sightings@amseas.org or they can call our office number (631) 317-0030.

“On the Beach with the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society – Sea Turtles & Marine Debris” will be held on Saturday, July 20, at 6 p.m. at The South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center. The program is free for SoFo members and is $15 for adults that are not member, $10 for children ages three to 12. The fee includes the price of admission. Advanced reservations are required: call (631) 537-9735 or visit sofo.org.