Endangered Sea Turtles at Risk from Gulf Oil Spill

Endangered Sea Turtles at Risk from Gulf Oil Spill

GALVESTON, Texas, May 1, 2010 (ENS) – Endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico are likely to be affected by the oil spilling from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead during their peak migration to nesting beaches, warn scientists and conservation workers who have invested decades in the sea turtles’ recovery.

“I have great concern for the environmental impact the spill will have on our fragile coast.” Dr. Andre Landry, Jr. of Texas A&M University’s Sea Turtle and Fisheries Ecology Research Lab said Friday. “We are entering the prime time within the ridley nesting season in which adult females will be in nearshore waters nesting three to four times every 14 to 21 days.”

“I am particularly concerned about potential damage to sea turtle assemblages that forage and nest along the Louisiana coast,” he said, “especially within Breton Sound, the Chandeleur Islands and eastward toward other barrier island beaches and their wetland fringes that extend to the Florida Panhandle and areas such as Cedar Key.”

The oil slick reached the Chandeleur Islands today.

The oil rig Deepwater Horizon is owned by the Swiss company Transocean Ltd. and leased by the British company BP. The Deepwater Horizon had been drilling an exploratory well about 51 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana when it exploded April 20, burned for 36 hours and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. Response crews have not been able to shut off the flow of oil from the wellhead, which is gushing out into the gulf at the rate of about 5,000 barrels per day.

Kemp’s ridley turtle crosses the beach at Padre Island National Seashore, a barrier island along the Texas coast. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Although there are five species of endangered and threatened sea turtles in the gulf, this area is one of the Kemp’s ridley’s only foraging and migration routes to their last remaining nesting beaches in Texas and Mexico.

“My satellite tracking data for both juvenile and adult ridleys reveal a strong loyalty to the Texas coast and eastward to the mouth of the Mississippi River,” says Dr. Landry. Oil from the spill has touched on Lousiana at the mouth of the Mississippi today.

While berms and booms to deflect and catch oil are installed in the Brenton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, and along about 220,000 feet of coastline, the majority of the gulf coastal areas remain unprotected from the impending environmental devastation.

As oil moves east toward Florida beaches, the oil spill also could impact nesting habitats of loggerhead and green sea turtles.

The west coast of Florida is the largest nesting area for loggerheads, currently proposed to be reclassified to endangered from threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of continued threats and population declines.

Green sea turtles are already listed as endangered and take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity and begin nesting.

Sea turtle specialists are most concerned right now about the endangered Kemp’s ridley, which is the smallest of the sea turtles and the only species to regularly nest during the day.

While the majority of these turtles nest in Mexico, they have been moving into Texas.

“This spill could not have come at a worse time for migrating and nesting Kemp’s ridleys. I am outraged that shrimp trawling has increased in Louisiana in anticipation of an oil closure, their careless actions kill hundreds of endangered turtles each year,” says Carole Allen, Gulf of Mexico director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and founder of the nonprofit Help Endangered Animals Ridley Turtles.

This oil spill has happened while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reviewing the Recovery Plan for the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which looks towards the possibility that this species could recover enough to be reclassified from endangered to threatened status by 2015.

Allen and Landry both have expressed concern that the current draft recovery plan fails to prioritize the importance of increased protections to assist sea turtle recovery in migration, foraging, and nesting habitats along the Gulf coast.

To report oiled or injured wildlife, call 1-866-557-1401. To discuss spill related damage claims, call 1-800-440-0858. To report oil on land, or for general Community and Volunteer Information, call 1-866-448-5816.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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