Wildlife conservation efforts stretched thin due to lack of volunteers, funding amid COVID-19

Posted at 6:21 PM, Sep 02, 2020

MELBOURNE, Fla. -- Wildlife conservation has long been a strong effort made by many organizations with volunteer help. But now with a limit on volunteers and a lack of funding, conservation efforts are stretched thin.

“We have 72 miles of coastline that we will take turtles in from, and those 72 miles of coastline actually hold the largest population of nesting Loggerhead sea turtles in the world,” Jessica Patterson explained. She is the coordinator at the Sea Turtle Healing Center in Melbourne, Florida.

The center takes in turtles found along this coast, helps them get back to health in this facility, and releases them. Turtles they temporarily name, like Perseverance and Jellybean. The number of turtles they take in can vary based on weather, human factors, and other animals.

“A few years ago we actually had over 1,500 washback or post-hatchling turtles come in,” Patterson said. This year, COVID-19 has washed in some new issues.

“My biggest concern is that we're seeing a lower amount of strandings this year. We as a community are not on the beach seeing them because a lot of people are opting to stay home to stay safe,” she said. That, and the people who take care of them.

Due to health concerns and social distancing rules, the center went from having eight volunteers a day to three. On this day, two morning volunteers were feeding the turtles and giving them any needed medication.

“A lot of the sea turtle rescues are probably struggling, again, in terms of personnel,” she said. However Patterson considers her team fortunate, because this center, unlike most, is part of a zoo.

“This is sea turtle nesting season and hatchling season and we have not cut back on that work,” Keith Winsten, Brevard Zoo Executive Director, said. “A lot of places did have to dramatically cut their mission-based work but we have kept moving forward with it.”

Brevard Zoo is a nonprofit zoo that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“We’ve always said OK we’ll jump in with both feet to get her done, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it later,” he said. “We're having to figure out how to pay for things later right now as much as any place.”

As with many businesses, the customer is their bread and butter.

“Since 90 percent of our dollars are earned from people coming through the gate, that means we are down a really significant amount in terms of income,” Winsten said.

“After reopening we realized we really needed to raise another million dollars to keep us fiscally sound,” he said.

Another project the zoo helps with is the restoration and conservation of the Indian River Lagoon.

“Which runs 156 miles north to south,” Jake Zehnder, Brevard Zoo Conservation Manager, said. “It is considered one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America.” Zehnder works to help repair the lagoon, which lines right down the road from the zoo.

“We work here in the Indian River Lagoon to help repair decades of damage and nutrient pollution,” he explained.

However unlike the sea turtles, the funding for this project is a little more stable.

“In Brevard County there's a sales tax for restoring the lagoon,” Winsten explained. “That allows us to keep moving through this pandemic.”

They also rely on large groups of volunteers, but right now, large gatherings are not allowed due to COVID-19.

Even with a lack of funding and helping hands, the health of the environment and local wildlife continue to be a priority.

“Sea turtles are like the sentinels of ocean health. If you see a population of sea turtles dwindling in an area, it’s a good indicator that the health of that area is not doing very well,” Patterson said.

“Every time we release a turtle, it's like a victory for the whole community. Everybody feels we’ve done something good to make up for the significant impacts we have,” Winsten said. He said the best way to help local zoos right now, is to visit and spend your money with them.