NEW ORLEANS — A weeklong international sea turtle conference is gearing up in New Orleans.
Starting Monday, more than 600 experts from around the globe will be discussing research done as near as the Gulf of Mexico and as far as Tanzania at the International Sea Turtle Society's 34th annual symposium on sea turtle biology and conservation.
"We have 73 countries so far represented," including Australia, Bangladesh and Cape Verde, said Roldán Valverde, president of the society and a biology associate professor at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Hundreds of people were attending workshops this weekend on topics ranging from tracking turtles in the water to sea turtle veterinary techniques.
About 20 veterinarians, veterinary technicians and rescue workers will attend 5-hour workshops Sunday at the Audubon Nature Institute's Aquatic Center on New Orleans' west bank, where hundreds of sea turtles were treated during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the surrounding Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species.
They'll spend the time discussing sea turtle treatment while dissecting sea turtles to learn what killed them, said Suzanne Smith, Audubon's stranding and rescue coordinator.
"The first step is using endoscopes to look inside the trachea down into the stomach before we even go inside these animals," she said, followed by X-rays to check for any broken bones.
"As we're going through it, it is not uncommon to say 'Oh, I've seen this in another turtle' or 'Oh, gosh, I haven't seen this. Has anyone seen anything like that?' Each animal opens its own path" to veterinary discussion, Smith said.
Because oil spill damage to sea turtles in the Gulf is still being assessed, the Aquatic Center had to import sea turtle cadavers. An East Coast rescue center provided 10 for the purpose, Smith said.
Those workshops follow a full day of talks and discussions Saturday about sea turtle rehabilitation and health; about 200 people signed up for them, Valverde said.
He said one presentation he's looking forward to is a poster by Pam Plotkin of the Texas Sea Grant Program about Kemp's ridley sea turtles.
"She's going to show nesting numbers in northern or northeast Mexico, where the main nesting beaches are. The numbers were increasing significantly up until the oil spill. And after that year the numbers are more erratic. You don't see the increase as strongly," he said.
On Monday, Valverde will discuss the status of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico.
They once were common and fished for their meat, but landings at ports began falling from the late 1800s until the early 1970s, Valverde said.
"After that, the fisheries had to be closed because there were just not enough turtles around," Valverde said. "In the early part of the 1900s the United States had to import sea turtles — from the Caribbean, especially — to fulfill the demand for sea turtle meat and sea turtle products."
Compared to a century or two ago, populations are very low, making them extremely vulnerable to environmental problems, Valverde said. "If you think about the oil spill, for instance, you can bet that the impact was much, much stronger than what has been reported so far."
All five sea turtle species in the Gulf of Mexico are considered endangered or threatened, making it illegal to sell their meat, eggs or shells.