A self-described "turtle team" captured a turtle at sea - with the guidance of state officials - and removed a large fishing hook from the animal's fin off Poolenalena Beach in Makena on Thursday.
For months, there were reports of a female turtle with a fishing hook in her left front fin, said Valerie Lane Simonsen, a member of the 12-member turtle team.
She ended up bringing the plight of the turtle to state officials' attention on March 9 after seeing the turtle while swimming with family and friends at the beach.
Divers from the “turtle team” pursue a green sea turtle with a fishing hook in its fin Thursday off Poolenalena Beach in Makena. Cory Ho‘opi‘iaina ended up giving the turtle a bear hug and bringing it ashore, where the hook was removed.
Skippy Hau of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources, and his assistant, Linda Castro, arrived at the scene, but they could not find the injured turtle, she said. Hao left the equipment to bring the turtle to shore and to remove the hook with Simonsen.
Weather did not permit another attempt to capture the turtle until Thursday, she said. A group of people gathered that day and came up with a game plan to bring the turtle to shore.
Cory Ho'opi'iaina, an experienced diver using two oxygen scuba tanks donated by Maui Dreams Dive Co. in Kihei, swam into the ocean with a team of snorkelers and free divers. The injured turtle was located, and after several failed attempts, Ho'opi'iaina was able to wrap his arms around the turtle, pull her close to this chest and swim to shore, said Simonsen.
Once on the beach, the turtle was pulled ashore on a tarp. The team decided to cut the steel double-barbed hook out of the fin with bolt cutters. The injury site was about the size of a quarter, she said.
Following Hao's instructions, the team measured the turtle (2 feet 3 inches wide and 2 feet 6 inches long), checked for other injuries (there were none) and turned the turtle toward the ocean.
The turtle quickly moved toward the waves and disappeared into the surf, Simonsen said.
The members of the turtle team were Simonsen, Ho'opi'iaina, John Hood, Vi English, Barbara Terrill Gach, Michael Reed Gach, Kelly Livingston, Patricia Ho'opi'iaina Shaw, Diane Angela Fong, Mark Shaw, Gordon Poulson and Garth MacFarlin.
Hao said that the turtle, a threatened green sea turtle, was approachable so an attempt to capture and remove the hook was doable. Some turtles are not approachable and attempting to capture them only makes them "skittish," he added. This could become a problem if the turtle later needs to be captured by experts, possibly because it has a trailing line from a hook that could get entangled on reefs or rocks, he said.
Turtles can be a danger to the diver as well. They may bite or use their powerful fins against those approaching, Hao said. If the turtle has a trailing line, divers could find themselves entangled in it and in danger.
Each turtle is handled on a case-by-case basis, he said. In the case of the "turtle team" and its work, Hao said he did consult with other turtle experts about their efforts, including the renowned authority on turtles George Balazs.
Hao said he didn't think that the hook in the fin was life-threatening, especially because the turtle was swimming on its own, "although it looks distressing."
"So many people see that same turtle so people want to do something," he said.
Hao said that there are five or six turtles that his crew knows of with hooks in their fins. If the turtle had swallowed the hook, it would have been a different matter and likely been fatal.
The other problem with hooks is a trailing line that may get snared on a rock. Turtles need to surface for air and could drown because of the trailing line. Hao said that often officials will leave the hook but cut the line as close as possible to the hook.
People often feel a connection with turtles.
"Members of the team were offering pule (prayers) and hands on healing onto her body," said Simonsen, a naturopathic physician, after they removed the hook. "She looked me in the eye and seemed to say 'mahalo.' ''
This kind of attachment and a general "just leave them alone" attitude in recent years have played a role in the return of the turtle population. While numbers of other threatened and endangered species continue to plummet, the turtle population is growing, Hao said.
"It's a good news story for natural resource management," said Hao, who said that he would not have foreseen this resurgence 20 years ago. "It's nice to see a lot more turtles than when I was growing up."
For those coming across the injured turtles, contact Hau at 243-5294 or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Turtle Research Program on Oahu at (808) 983-5730.
NOAA also advises fishermen who hook a turtle accidentally to reel in the turtle with care, hold the turtle by the shell or flippers, cut the line close to the hook and release the animal with no line attached.
NOAA also suggests that fishermen check their bait after every nibble and to use barbless circle hooks.
For more information, go to the website www.fpir.noaa.gov.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.