Dead sea turtle washes up on Fire Island

A marine rescue group is trying to figure out Friday how to deal with the body of a 5-to-6-foot leatherback turtle that was found washed ashore at Ocean Beach on Fire Island. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Aug. 9, 2013)

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A flipper tag and muscle sample were retrieved by biologists from a 5-to-6-foot sea turtle that washed up on Fire Island's Ocean Beach, the director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation said.

The endangered leatherback sea turtle was decomposed, likely dead for at least a week, and Islip Town officials will take care of disposing it, possibly burying it on the beach, said director Robert DiGiovanni.

From its size, the turtle was at least 20 years old, he said.

The leatherback is listed as an endangered species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is listed as critically endangered in other parts of the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

This species is usually found in the open ocean. "With its streamlined body shape and the powerful front flippers, a leatherback can swim thousands of miles over open ocean and against fast currents," the federal Fish and Wildlife Service said on its website.

DiGiovanni is hoping the tag from the animal's flipper will yield more information on its age and travels. His team will contact federal and private organizations that track turtles to see who may have tagged the Fire Island turtle.

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But he said what makes the effort difficult is the lack of standardization about the information that must go on tags placed on marine animals, including turtles, and lack of agreement on how these tags should be tracked.

"It's really a slow process to get people to move to something new . . . and see the benefits of having a standardized system," said DiGiovanni, a marine biologist.

He said the leatherback appears to be 5 to 6 feet long, weighing between 800 and 1,000 pounds.

The leatherback's greatest threat is accidental netting by commercial fisheries and trash, such as plastic bags and balloons, which they mistake for jellyfish and eat, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

It is about the "fifth or sixth this year" the Riverhead Foundation has either disposed of or rescued from fishing lines, DiGiovanni said.

"We get about 10 or 12 a year that are dead or need to be freed from gear," he said. "It's not uncommon, and it appears this one has been dead for a long time."

Photographs of the turtle surfaced Friday, via email to several media outlets on Long Island.

The turtle's muscle sample, also taken from the flipper, could tell the foundation DNA details and whether the animal was sick, DiGiovanni said.

But he was not optimistic of finding much: "Our thought is that it might be too decomposed to get anything out of it."

With Gary Dymski

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