Evaluation of Alabama Estuaries as Developmental Habitat for Juvenile Sea Turtles
David Nelson1, Thane Wibbels2 and Ken Marion2
Department of Biology, University of South, Alabama, Mobile AL 36688
2 Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham AL   35294-1170
Estuarine ecosystems represent a vital habitat for sea turtles in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Hildebrand, 1982; Ogren, 1989). These estuaries are of particular importance to the survival of the Kemp's ridley (the most endangered sea turtle in the world) and the loggerhead (the most abundant sea turtle in the northern Gulf of Mexico), since they serve as developmental habitat for juveniles (Musik and Limpus, 1990). These turtles are opportunistic feeders, but show a preference for specific crustaceans associated with the estuaries. However, estuaries are also of vital importance to the Gulf fisheries. Therefore, a knowledge of the specific location of sea turtle foraging grounds within estuaries is critical to the development of a prudent management strategy which protects sea turtles while sustaining the productivity of the fisheries. 

Although the coast of Alabama represents one of the major estuarine systems in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the abundance of juvenile sea turtles in this ecosystem has never been adequately examined. It is clear, that numerous juvenile turtles have been captured in trawls in this area, but this is based on anecdotal observations in the past. This lack of adequate information is problematic when attempting to evaluate and develop a management strategy for Alabama estuaries. Our research will directly address this issue by evaluating the utilization of estuaries in Alabama by juvenile sea turtles and potentially identifying specific foraging areas. 

Our research will identify potential foraging areas by conducting sampling surveys at selected sites throughout the Alabama bay system. We will be using tangle net methodology which is currently being used on a routine basis by sea turtle projects in many areas of Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. All captured turtles will be weighed, measured, and tagged before they are released.  Additionally, a subset of turtles will be radio tracked in order to document their movements within the bay system.