Texas’ official sea turtle is on a slide that could eventually lead to extinction after a spectacular comeback and years of effort to save it, according to figures released Tuesday at a gathering of scientists and environmentalists.
“It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010 and we don’t know why,” Selina Heppell, professor at Oregon State University’s department of fish and wildlife, said in comments before a presentation. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”
Scientists had worried about the meaning of decreases in the number of turtle nests for 2010, 2013 and this year, the only decreases in the new century. But Heppell, who developed the method used to calculate the turtle’s nesting population, offered the most definitive numbers showing that the Kemp’s ridley was again in trouble.
To understand the reasons for the decline, some say, it’s important for the federal government to restore money it took away this year for the Mexico/U.S. Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Population Restoration Program.
An earlier story has some more details.
The first symposium in Galveston in 1985 came at a time when the Kemp’s ridley was at the edge of extinction and efforts to protect the main nesting grounds in Mexico seemed to make little difference. A series of new efforts followed the symposium, including new laws protecting the turtles from being killed by fishermen. The efforts began to show signs of success by 2000, and by the middle of the last decade the population was increasing by 12 to 17 percent per year.
Then in 2010, a fiery explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 workers and dumped an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil boiled into the Gulf just as the Kemp’s ridley nesting season got underway. Oil fouled the area near Louisiana where female turtles normally forage after nesting at the main nesting grounds in Mexico or along the Texas Gulf Coast. Scientists found scores of dead Kemp’s ridley juveniles floating in oil scum in the deep sea among clumps of seaweed. Kemp’s ridley turtles spend the first year of their lives floating at sea in islands of sargassum seaweed.
Scientists count the number of nests laid by sea turtles to determine their long-term prospects rather than estimating the species population. Although the number of nests set a record in 2012, the trend has been downward since 2010 and scientists are worried.
Presentations at the symposium may help explain whether the oil spill is connected to the Kemp’s ridley decline. Donna Shaver, chief of the U.S. Park Service’s sea turtle science division at Padre Island National Seashore, is one of three scientists involved in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment on the Kemp’s ridley since the BP spill who will offer information from the damage study. Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Laboratory director at Texas A&M University at Galveston, will make public for the first time information about turtle foraging habits in relation to the oil spill.
A later version of the first Chron story linked above adds some more information about that 2010 oil spill and its effects.
A study presented at the Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium found oil in the carapace, or shell, of 29 sea turtles that returned to feed in the spill area in 2011 and 2012.
And while experts say the only way to say with certainty that the oil came from the spill would have been to test the turtles’ blood right after they came in contact with the oil, the finding provides powerful evidence that the environmental disaster dealt a blow to turtle recovery efforts, including a downward trend in nesting since 2010.
“It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010, and we don’t know why,” said Selina Heppell, a professor at Oregon State University who developed the method used to calculate the turtle’s nesting population. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”
Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Lab director at Texas A&M University in Galveston, conducted the study that was discussed Tuesday. She pointed out that because turtles nest about every two years, those exposed to oil in 2011 and 2012 would have nested in 2013 and 2014, years that saw steep declines in nesting numbers.
Reich’s study is the first information released from a three-year damage assessment conducted to find out whether the spill affected the Kemp’s ridley, the smallest of five sea turtles found in the Gulf.
Much of the information gathered by Reich is being kept under wraps for use in legal proceedings to determine BP’s liability for the spill. Reich and other researchers signed confidentiality agreements, but she was able to release her study with special permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Other studies are underway that are being done either independently or as part of the damage assessment.
“We hope that when we come together, all our research will paint a picture,” Reich said.
So far the picture is dismal, according to an analysis of the Kemp’s ridley nesting numbers presented by Heppell.
That’s just deeply depressing. Here’s the website and Facebook page for the symposium. I sincerely hope that Texas’ elected officials pay heed to this and do their part to take whatever action is needed to help these animals survive.