The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) relies on volunteers throughout the state to report on sea turtle strandings, alive and dead. A stranding involves a sea turtle that has washed up on the beach or is incapacitated in the water. The SC Marine Turtle Conservation Program trains and permits volunteers through the SCDNR. Strandings in Beaufort County are on the rise due to boat strikes, disease, impaction from ingesting plastics, fishing interaction, etc.
Compared to other beaches in Beaufort County, the Hilton Head area reports the most live strandings and Amber Kuehn is the only volunteer permitted to transport live sea turtles to SCDNR personnel. All live strandings from the Bluffton/Hilton Head area since 2013 to date have been transported by Amber Kuehn. A live transport requires a special permit, a temperature regulated vehicle, temperature readings, water application, and solid knowledge of support and transfer of the injured animal. Injured or sick sea turtles are admitted to the SC Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Sea Turtle Hospital at the SC Aquarium. Amber has a masters degree in Marine Biology focused on sea turtle research and manages the Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island.
SCDNR honored Amber Kuehn with a plaque in 2014 for her dedicated response to stranded sea turtles in Beaufort County. She has responded to over 60 stranded sea turtles since 2013.
In 2013, Wayne McFee, a NOAA affiliate, attended a Sea Turtle Volunteer end of season meeting at Ft. Johnson in Charleston, SC. In his presentation, he mentioned that the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins were experiencing a UME (Unusual Mortality Event) which lasted throughout 2013 and into 2014. The second highest number of bottlenose dolphin strandings in SC history occurred in 2014 due to a morbillivirus. Those interested in assisting with marine mammal strandings and Level A data collection (pictures and measurements) were encouraged to meet with him after the meeting. Amber Kuehn began transporting deceased dolphins to Charleston for necropsy (animal autopsy) within a week of this meeting and was subsequently trained to perform necropsies locally on September 1, 2014. McFee was comfortable with this training effort due to the fact that Amber’s background includes a marine biology graduate degree and 18 years of experience with marine science field work. Amber is also a professional boat captain and responds to reports of strandings by water with her research vessel, Spartina. She runs ecology tours on this vessel to educate the public as to the unique ecosystem of the Port Royal Sound area and the Lowcountry waterways.
Amber performs necropsies in the field for SCMMSN (SC Marine Mammal Stranding Network), to lighten the work load for SCDNR and NOAA affiliates responding to marine mammal and sea turtle stranding incidents. Fuel for truck/boat, and valuable time spent have been costs intermittently covered by Amber personally.
The health of our dolphin and sea turtle populations will give us a clear picture of the health of our ecosystem. These animals are keystone species, and react to environmental strains. Monitoring the population is crucial to identify individuals and to determine causes of death. Tissue samples can diagnose diseases and photo documentation with measurements can give biologists external data to corroborate findings. This information supports the research of dedicated biologists in the field for future conservation efforts.
SPARTINA DOLPHIN AND SEA TURTLE STRANDING RESPONSE FUND
This fund was set up to receive donations that are tax deductible through the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. For 3 years, I have supported my volunteer effort through funding from Spartina Charters. I named the fund after the boat that has retrieved stranded dolphins over the years and has paid for the truck, the gas, the cleaning supplies, etc. All donations go directly to the fund. A donation can be made in honor of someone who loves marine life.