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BP Oil Disaster Threatens Survival of the “Gulf’s Sea Turtle”

Kemp's ridley sea turtle
They rebounded from near extinction, but now the Kemp's ridley sea turtle faces new hazards

The Kemp's ridley sea turtle, one of the great success stories in marine conservation, is among the creatures most threatened by the Deepwater Horizon oil platform spill on the Gulf Coast.

Biologists sometimes call Kemp's ridley "the Gulf's sea turtle" because it typically spends its entire life in the Gulf of Mexico. All other species tend to roam in and out of the Caribbean. Just a century ago, this smallest of all sea turtle species was relatively common. In 1947, as many as 40,000 females came ashore on a single day to the turtle's major nesting beach in northeastern Mexico.

Their eggs were considered an aphrodisiac and were gobbled up by the tens of thousands in Mexico. Adult ridleys were accidentally caught by U.S. and Mexican shrimp trawlers and drowned. By 1985, biologists counted a total of just 702 ridley nests left on the coast. The marine reptile was going extinct.

But the little turtles made a big turnaround, says Dr. Donna Shaver, chief of sea turtle science at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.

"It's taken a lot of work by a lot of people," Shaver said this week. "But over the years, the number of Kemp's ridley nests on the Texas coast has grown exponentially."

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In 2005, there were 50 nests in Texas, most of them on Padre Island. By the next year, that number had doubled. Last year, Shaver recorded nearly 200 nests on Lone Star beaches. In Mexico, still the primary nesting site, biologists found 20,000 nests in 2009.

Then came the April 20 explosion on BP's offshore rig, which left 11 workers presumed dead and caused what now appears to be the largest-ever release of oil into U.S. waters, eclipsing even the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster -- a flow that continues with no end in sight.

"At this point, I can't say if any turtles have died due to oil from the rig explosion," says Andre Landry, Jr., a turtle expert at Texas A&M. "That doesn't mean they haven't. And it certainly does not mean that they won't."

Landry directs his college's sea turtle and fisheries ecology research laboratory. When I reached him yesterday, Landry was still on the water, returning from a nesting patrol north of Galveston Island. He hasn't spotted any ridley nests yet this year, but the season, which generally starts in early April, is just beginning. It was delayed by a record cold snap this winter. Although Landry didn't find any nests yesterday, he recovered two young ridleys -- both dead.

"We've had a rash of deaths here in Texas -- 30, probably approaching 40 turtles by now," he says. Most have been ridleys, but all sea turtle species are listed as endangered or threatened. It's impossible to say what's causing the spike, which began several days before the oil spill. The number of strandings -- when sea turtles come ashore sick, injured, tangled in fishing gear, or dead -- varies from year to year.

Both Landry and Shaver are concerned about the oil gusher's impact on the ridley's chances of survival in the coming years. No one knows how much oil will leak before the well is capped. The direction and speed of the drifting oil changes with the wind and weather. Even if most nesting beaches are spared a direct hit by large amounts of oil, Kemp's ridleys aren't necessarily safe. Although they tend to stay within the Gulf, ridleys migrate from their nesting beaches to distant foraging grounds. Many of the turtles native to Padre Island, and even some that nest in Mexico, feed in the shallow waters near shore, from Texas across the Gulf coast to the Florida panhandle. Those are the areas most likely to be hit hard by the oil spill.

"One of their favorite foraging spots is immediately west of the Mississippi River," says Landry. "If we have a wind or current change, we may see them fouled."

Oil in the water column (below the surface) isn't much danger to the turtles. Unlike fish that get their oxygen from water, sea turtles breathe air. The danger comes when they surface to breathe. If they happen to surface in an oil slick, turtles are liable to swallow or inhale oil, which could be fatal.

Landry focuses on another potentially more damaging problem caused by the oil: the destruction of the ecosystem. "Kemp's ridleys eat crustaceans, primarily blue crabs," he says. "If the oil contaminates the habitat that sustains the crabs, that will almost certainly affect the turtle's ability to survive."

Another threat could also last for years. Ridleys don't reach sexual maturity for at least a decade. During their first several years after hatching, young turtles drift on mats of seaweed that form in the gulf. The same combination of forces that forms these clumps also channels oil. Young turtles can easily get caught in the sticky mat of seaweed and oil and drown. (These same floating habitats are already dangerous for young turtles because of the enormous amounts of plastic garbage they contain. In a recent Florida study, 100 percent of small loggerhead turtles found on these mats had ingested plastic.)

Despite all the new threats posed by the oil disaster, the Park Service's Donna Shaver tries to remain optimistic about the species she has championed for three decades. After all, she was there when Kemp's ridley sea turtles were nearly wiped out in the mid-1980s. That gives her hope that they can continue to be survivors, even under the worst of circumstances.

But no one knows if those hopes are justified -- and it will be years before we get an answer.

Editor's note: OnEarth correspondent Osha Gray Davidson is the author of the book Fire in the Turtle House, which tracks a mysterious disease threatening the survival of sea turtles worldwide.

image of odavidson
Osha Gray Davidson covers energy and the environment for OnEarth. A freelance writer, Davidson's work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Salon, Grist, Mother Jones, and many other publications. He has written five nonfiction books, in... READ MORE >

What is so sad turtles are already in trouble and now man has managed to kill off the remaining ones and once a animal is killed off there are no more and man doesn't seem to get it all animals large and small we very much depend upon for life itself.

The ecotox impacts will be felt for many years, and deal a major blow to decades of sea turtles recovery work. Great to speak with you yesterday, Osha.

Learn more and take action at http://www.seaturtles.org

Thanks for this Osha.

The need for work on behalf of sea turtles and the ocean won't let up for a very long time. Whether it's poaching, overfishing, bycatch in shrimp trawls, plastic pollution, beach development or oil spills, we will need a lot of people working hard for the foreseeable future to hang on to what we have and love about this planet.

Thanks to Donna Shaver for being such a strong example of the kind of tenacity needed.

Good report, Osha. I didn't realize that dead turtles were washing ashore before the spill. It'll be very complex work, sorting out what caused what.

I'm surprised to hear that Dr Landry said the recent numbers of turtle stranding is surprising. This winter's cold snap caused a record number of stranding from Florida to Texas (5000 in Florida alone). Cold can kill a turtle directly or the hypothermic stunning can lead to a DELAYED mortality by compromising the immune system which leads to infection.

See Osha's follow-up post to this article with the latest news on sea turtles here: http://www.onearth.org/node/2102

Oh my gosh! They belong to endangered species. The oil spill incident seems like making problems but the oil spill within the Gulf of Mexico 2010 wasn't a problem for every person. Actually, wind power advocates are ultimately getting the consideration they deserve due to this misfortune. America has some wind farms through the entire region, but they are small in quantities. It appears as though the harder somebody works for a wind farm; the harder more individuals push back from a wind farm. With the BP oil spill increasing gas prices, it is also raising wind power stock prices. The 2 seem to work together. I think that we will finally start for making a dent on our atmosphere.

Be a part of the solution, start now! Trying to improve the quality of life goes for all living things, not just us humans. How much more are we going to destroy? How many more innocent lives? How much more of our precious environment? At what cost?

Suppose all of this so called "spewed-oozed" OIL had been collected and contained in far flung containers worldwide, processed as tar for our roads or refined as fuel for our transport fleet, then none of this hoopla would have taken the shape of monster news event for worldwide. Perhaps, the impact or magnitude of the OIL would have been same on our environment on air and land both. The gas would have added much more carbon contents had it got burnt or tar would have covered much more square miles across the world than the "oozed" layer of oil we see over the surface of waters in the gulf. The issue is, the immediate psychological impact of "what we see is what we get" which is much smaller foot print in a concentrated portion of the area compared to had we used in gas or in tar form spreading all over the world. As a result this has definitely caused a panic effect among all of us, especially for / to the people living near the epic center of "oozing" oil.

Conclusively had we contained all of the oozing oil as if it did not have ruptured the way it is, then obviously no one would have known about how much of the oil has been contained away or say "hidden away", which could have been refined to be used as fuel with much more "severe" impact of carbon foot print and heaps of "solid" waste of tar and other residuals spread all over the beautiful landscape as "black top road". Hence, it would have been "slow & silent spew" of carbon in the air or cladding beautiful land with black top tar, with no much noise or attention as compared to what we have seen/heard in over last 60 days.
Figure this, the current massive oil oozing, is significantly pretty small as compared to over 100 yrs of oil usage, that have caused much greater damage by inducing and injecting real life carbon contents in the environment by burning fuel along with cladding over millions of square miles over the beautiful landscape called "road to success" to roll the "train of every day transportation".
With all above, why do we want to pull political pundits into this? What political figures can do in this issue, except taking advantage of fueling their own agenda to propagate their own point of view for their own or party's sake?
It’s all about man-made mad processes, politics, products, policies......that never let the "lonely" man-kind live and die in peace, rather in “p.i.e.c.e.s"!

Like it use to be dark ages, then came stone ages, here comes man-made "man-age" , go figure and manage the mess together.

Sometimes all this makes me think, while REAPING the Profits out OF or FOR "earthly" resources, why are we RAPING the Mother Earth? isn't mother earth has already given us enough to sustain with basic earthly/environ friendly transportation needs? Like there's provision for all kinds of terrains, for nice paved road there's Horse and horse driven carriage, for muddy-paddy area or needs more "Hummer" power, then there's elephant ride or elephant driven carriage, if there's desert sandy terrain then there's camel or camel pulled carriage, if it is agriculture fields, there’s OX. All natural environmental friendly with perfectly synchronized speed and no need of seat belts or PPE, with zero to slim chance of high speed road accidents.

As compared to automobiles these "god given good" natural transportation resources are far better than our own complicated pieces of so called "automobiles". The natural transportation model has no environment pollution thru its operational life cycle, and no toxic waste at "the end of product life cycle". Whereas, the "man-made mad" car takes and emits all kinds of chemicals to produce or to make it functional thru its operational life cycle, till "the end of product life cycle", with high level of concentrated toxic solids or gaseous waste, which are obviously NOT biodegradable. Moreover, there are so many variables to produce and functionally make the car run with high probability of failures and unreliability, it’s like "out of control". Whereas the natural transportation model has less operating variables with much higher confidence level, reliability and way over "under-control". (Same applies for the operating and maintenance cost between both types of transportation models, off-course the natural model is more economically cost effective than "Man Made MAD Machine Model")

Now here comes the hybrid and alternate fuel type cars, may use or emit low on gases. Perhaps to produce these hybrids it may take heaps of chemicals thru process, to making it functional or replace and dump batteries, and most importantly at "end of product life", the solid wastes will be enormous with heavy metal batteries. By volume weight, hybrids and electric cars would have much higher levels of toxic wastes as compared to todays, full combustion fueled cars.
It’s all about “victimization” and “ownership”……..we think as if we are the OWNERS of this planet and universe, with “can do anything freedom attitude”, as if all is FREE to abuse and use the mother earth however whenever, where ever we want and like, without evaluating the environmental, ecological or geological impacts. As a result here’s what we got, “go figure the mess and fix it”, this is what we are telling our next generation to do. Today, what we have created, all the gadgets to add “comforts of lifestyle” at all levels are biting us back in the butt.
Causing health issues, environ issues, depleting cultures, causing endless industrial or accidents in road, mid air, at home thru all walks of life. All of it, it’s the result of what we “own” is what makes us “victim” about. By “reaping” the profits out of or for earthly resources, we are “raping” the beautiful form, fit and function of our mother earth, disturbing with its environ, eco-system, landscape, minerals, vegetation, animal life, languages and cultures of human settlement across the horizon, making it more “global economy”. If you don’t like or I don’t like we have a “safety shield” of WMDs (ammos) filled with massive amount of chemically refined reactive compound to cause intensive destruction by bio-toxic or implosion or explosion. This is hoopla of global peace by hoax, force or torch.

thisis so sad that they are dieing off so qwicly even with out us. its just so sad.