Padre Island National Seashore Partners with Texas State Aquarium in an Aquarium-Park Partnership for America’s Keystone Wildlife

January 26, 2021

Padre Island National Seashore Partners with Texas State Aquarium in an Aquarium-Park Partnership for America’s Keystone Wildlife

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX USA–  Providing vital support to Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS) during the COVID-19 epidemic, Texas State Aquarium (TSA) became the second Aquarium-Park Partnership (APP) to participate in a joint initiative of National Park Service (NPS) and Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) with the signing of a general agreement on December 23, 2020. Called the Zoo-Park Partnerships for America’s Keystone Wildlife Project, this initiative involves 10 other zoo/aquarium and National Park pairs across the country.

PAIS and TSA collaborate on the rescue and field conservation of the diverse wildlife species found on the island; such as sea turtles, migratory seabirds, butterflies, amphibians, and marine mammals.  Visitors to the TSA experience PAIS through aquarium exhibits and activities, which encourages visitors to be citizen stewards of park wildlife.

This formal partnership also comes timely as thirty-two sea turtles were rescued during a recent cold snap in the Coastal Bend. As part of the ongoing collaboration between TSA and PAIS, nine of these turtles were transported to the Aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue Center, where they can regain a healthy body temperature in the Center’s rehabilitation pools.

“By becoming a formal Aquarium-Park Partnership, we are expanding upon TSA’s help with cold-stunned and stranded sea turtles to include rehabilitation of most all marine animals found injured at the park,” said Eric Brunnemann, Superintendent of PAIS. “This includes migratory shore birds and all marine mammals that are victims of trash ingestion or entanglement and disease.”

“We are excited to bring additional capacity to the park to give its imperiled wildlife the chance to recover and return to the Gulf as healthy animals able to survive in the wild,” said Jesse Gilbert, TSA’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

“Wildlife are part of the historical landscape our nation’s parks sustain and interpret. AZA zoo and aquarium partners contribute expertise and resources to help parks meet America’s wildlife health and population recovery goals,” said Julie Anton Randall, Project founder and director.

In addition to boots-on-the ground work supported by this partnership, TSA and NPS educators collaborate to foster the next generation of conservation stewards by connecting youth with local natural resources. The park’s Interpretation and Education staff host a portion of the Aquarium’s Sea Camp, taking kids each summer out on the beach for special programs and cleanups. The aquarium has in turn provided the park with educational specimens to help connect our visitors with Padre Island’s wildlife and participated in special events at the Seashore. “When describing aquatic animals at the national seashore, visitors must rely on a healthy imagination. We virtually never have a chance to encounter these incredible animals in their natural habitat. That is why our partnership with the Texas State Aquarium is so vital. Seeing these animals up close forms the bridge between the story of Padre Island and our visitor’s imaginations,” said lead ranger for the Division of Education and Interpretation, Dustin Baker.

Many of the sea turtles that come to PAIS also have tumors on their eyes, mouth, joints, and internal organs that are often fatal. TSA vets can do surgery to remove them. When a Kemp’s ridley with a deep cut was found nesting on the island, TSA performed surgery to save her life. “She lost a lot of blood, but we were aggressive with our treatment plan, and she responded well. We collected diagnostics, including blood work, ultrasound examination, and radiographs as she gained strength. After the initial surgery, the veterinary staff continued to treat the wound for several weeks until it had adequately healed. Although the turtle will continue to have damage to her carapace for some time, we determined she was well enough to return to the wild, and she was released on July 7, 2020,” said TSA’s head veterinarian, Dr. Taylor Yaw.

TSA jumped in as a trusted ally when PAIS faced a shortage of volunteers and seasonal staff when COVID-19 struck Texas that coincided with the start of Kemp’s ridley nesting season. The Kemp’s ridley is the most endangered sea turtle species, and with PAIS efforts over four decades, its beaches support a secondary nesting colony that safeguards against extinction.

“We were thrilled to step in and provide our staff and vehicles to reach the eggs and help park rangers monitor the nests and recover the eggs,” said Emma Gilbert, TSA’s Mammal Curator. TSA staff are trained in veterinary and husbandry methods that gave PAIS the confidence to bring them quickly into operations.

“TSA’s top-notch professionals carry out their work with precision clockwork,” says Dr. Donna Shaver, PAIS’ Chief, Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery. “TSA’s maintenance crew acted quickly as Hurricane Hannah was bearing down to disassemble our remote egg corral 39 miles south of where the paved road ends in the park. This spared an expensive, critical resource for sea turtles at Padre Island, just before the water rose.”

At a time of great uncertainty with the pandemic outbreak, the TSA-PAIS Aquarium-Park Partnership was a bright light,” said Jesse Gilbert. “It kept our spirits up while the aquarium had to be shut down that we were able to do more conservation work for the Gulf of Mexico.”

For more information about Padre Island National Seashore wildlife, visit the park webpage at https://www.nps.gov/pais/learn/nature/animals.htm. More about the sea turtle recovery program can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/nps.pais.seaturtles.

For more information about Texas State Aquarium, go to: http://www.texasstateaquarium.org/.

See photos here: Photos and B-Roll

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