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Turtle Event (7)1bSeven loggerhead turtles have been released back into their natural environment following a long rehabilitation process that saw them recover from various injuries and ailments. On the occasion of World Turtle Day, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs, the Malta Tourism Authority, the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre and Nature Trust joined forces to organise the 2010 Eco Schools Turtle Release event. This initiative falls within the 2010 calendar for the International Year of Biodiversity which MEPA together with other worldwide organisations are carrying out to increase the public's awareness of what biodiversity actually means and to safeguard biodiversity.

Turtles are considered as being marine reptile, and although they live submerged in the sea, they breathe through lungs and therefore have to come to the surface to breathe.

When surfacing, a sea turtle can quickly refill its lungs with a single exhalation and rapid inhalation, and their large lungs are adapted for deep dives. However, turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches.

Although marine turtles in Malta are considered as vulnerable and are susceptible to various threats, a number of activities are being undertaken by MEPA to protect them. MEPA started working on marine turtles since its inception as the Environment Protection Department in 1991; these species were protected by law the following year, prohibiting their capture. Following this, with the recruitment of staff with adequate training on marine turtles, work proceeded from the policy phase to implementation.

Guidelines for fishermen for the handling of these creatures and an action plan were devised by MEPA in collaboration with the Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) in Tunis, and since 2000 the Authority has started looking into the rescuing of injured, sick or stranded turtles. MEPA also organised a systematic and coordinated approach by those entities authorised to assist in turtle rescue operations.

The rescue of marine turtles is generally required when the animal has become entangled in fishing gear, stranded due to disease or after having swallowed some marine debris or due to injury. But turtle rescue operations alone are not enough to save the life of a turtle - a significant amount of human and physical resources is needed to nurse injured turtles back to full health.

Turtles are rehabilitated in special tanks until they recover and are deemed to be fit enough to be released back into their natural environment. Rehabilitation time is a case-by-case analysis and depends on the injury or stress that the turtle has been through.

The rehabilitation process is followed by a turtle release exercise, such as the last one carried out on the 21st May this year. The release of turtles is set after agreement, based on scientific and veterinary grounds, which is usually reached between the MEPA and the Veterinary Services, and mostly depends on a veterinary assessment for fitness of release of the specimen in question (which also follows a particular protocol).

Each turtle is then tagged by MEPA officials in accordance with a Mediterranean protocol. Tagging is not a conservation measure, but is done to enable the tracking of tagged turtles along the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. Recent activities also involve the installation of satellite tracking devices on two turtles, which have been followed along their journey in the Mediterranean thanks to the work of MEPA, RAC/SPA (the Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas) in Tunis and the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples (Italy). Recent genetic studies on Maltese and other Mediterranean turtles carried out by the University of Tor Vergata in Rome (Italy), with assistance from MEPA and Fisheries, has also yielded interesting results on the origins of the Maltese turtles.

Ultimately, though this data and other related activities, MEPA hopes to be able to better protect these species for posterity. It should be noted that all this work is possible due to the dedication of various government bodies, including MEPA, the Veterinary Services and Fisheries Division, the Armed Forces of Malta and the Civil Protection Department, as well as the general public, fishermen, environmental NGOs and research institutions.