PUBLISHED:October 30, 2009

Turtle advocacy

When Karen Beasley, beset by terminal cancer, asked her mother to use money from her life insurance policy to fund a program dedicated to sea turtle preservation, Jean Beasley didn’t know where to begin. Karen had already started to build an organization for this purpose, but her mother Jean, a schoolteacher in Topsail Beach, N.C., was unsure about how to proceed after Karen’s death.

“It took a turtle that had nowhere to go to push us into doing something,” says Jean, now the director of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, leader of a hard-working corps of volunteers, and indefatigable advocate for the four species of turtle that frequent North Carolina’s coastal waterways.

“This little turtle washed in and had a serious head injury,” Beasley says, recounting her first turtle rescue in 1997. “I took the turtle to the vet school where they cleaned and bandaged the wound. I said, ‘Can we come back to see the turtle in a few days?’ They laughed and said, ‘We don’t have any place to keep a turtle.’ So back it came with us.”

The unlucky turtle launched the Sea Turtle Hospital and an ongoing community effort to protect endangered sea turtles. That effort is now aided by students and faculty in Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, who have studied the impacts of sonar testing off the coast of North Carolina and fishery regulation on the sea turtle population and provided counsel to Beasley as she develops an advocacy agenda.

“We were really trying to instruct the students that the role of lawyer or policy advisor goes beyond researching and analyzing the applicable law and science to include a counseling role,” says Michelle Nowlin JD/MA‘92, the clinic’s supervising attorney. “After the research we focused on counseling Jean about the ramifications and tradeoffs in the different actions she could pursue.”

A grassroots effort
After bringing that first turtle home, Beasley says that she and a group of friends passed the hat to raise enough money to buy a tank, create a system to pump and filter water in from the sound behind the island, and feed the creature.

“The turtle went into the tank, we were nursing it, everything was great,” Beasley says. “Until it started getting cold. We had no place inside, no way to heat water. We ran a 150-foot extension cord across this lot and put a tent over the turtle tank.”

Beasley laughs at the memory of the heated turtle tent — in fact, she laughs a lot. If maintaining emotional equilibrium in the face of long odds was a necessity as a schoolteacher, her good humor is even more indispensible in her position with the Sea Turtle Hospital.

Of the six sea turtle species that are found in United States waters or that nest on U.S. beaches, all are designated as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The Beasley center treats several individuals from each of the four species found in North Carolina waters — Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback and Kemp’s Ridley — at any one time.

“Whenever we get discouraged … a turtle will come in that looks at you and literally hits you on the backside with their flippers and says ‘Stop wallowing in self pity here, and get going, we need you to do this!’” says Beasley.

Researching impact from military and fishing industry
Students at the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic have been working with the Sea Turtle Hospital for a year, says Nowlin.

“The first project we identified was commenting on a proposal that the U.S. Navy had for establishing a sonar training range off the coast of North Carolina,” she says. The proposed location bisected a state-designated sea turtle sanctuary, and the Navy did not take into account the effects of the sonar training on the navigation abilities of juvenile turtles.

“There were a number of different pro¬tocols that would be involved in the Navy’s training that would put a lot of detritus — parachutes, sonobuoys, and other trash that the Navy planned on leaving behind — right in the middle of this raft of sargassum that floats along the Gulf Stream. It could potentially either look like food to juvenile sea turtles, or actually drown them.”

Students from the clinic reviewed the Navy’s draft environmental impact statement and submitted written comments.

“We were able to take a couple of students down to the coast for the Navy’s public hearing, and they actually made comments at the hearing,” Nowlin says. “It was a really good opportunity for them to see how a government process works, to engage with the client in an intense way, to do some field research and literature studies around the science of sonar and sea turtle biology and behavior, and then to pull it all together.”

The clinic is also working with the Sea Turtle Hospital on regulations regarding bycatch, the accidental capture of sea turtles by fisheries in the sounds of North Carolina, particularly in the commonly-used pound nets and gill nets, which can easily snare and drown or injure turtles.

“[Jean] was concerned that there were insufficient regulations around that and wanted us to explore what the different regulatory options might be for protecting sea turtles,” Nowlin says. “They are entitled to federal protection, and it is against federal law to take or harm these turtles. So the capturing in these nets constitutes a take under the Endangered Species Act.”

Clinical students are studying the impact of the nets on turtle populations and on the species recovery plans developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and delving into applicable regulations.

“What are the regulatory options under the Endangered Species Act? What agencies have the authority and responsibility for the protection of sea turtles, in contrast with the regulations to ensure sound fisheries management? What we learned is that the regulation is divided between different federal agencies, and then again among various state agencies. So, combining all of that information, the students were able to come up with several different options.”

The students’ work and dedication has provided Beasley with the foundation she needs to develop and sustain her advocacy efforts.

“I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I first made contact with Michelle Nowlin about the possibility of some of the Duke environmental law students researching topics of interest to the Sea Turtle Hospital,” Beasley says. “I jumped on it like a flea on a dog. It has already had wonderful payoffs for the Sea Turtle Hospital."