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Will Sea Turtles Be The Big Victims of the Gulf Oil Spill?

Kemp's ridley sea turtle
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle trudges through beach, photo by krembo1

The sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico may turn out to be the ones in the most trouble from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even though they haven’t shown signs of oil, they may be ingesting it.

Dr. Mike Ziccardi, a veterinarian who runs the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and is handling all the non-bird oiled wildlife in the gulf, now says they’re getting a high number of dead turtles, 156 so far. Mostly juveniles and mostly the rarest kind, Kemp’s Ridley, reports. The dead sea turtles “are in higher numbers than you would expect,” he told Reuters.

No one is sure what killed the turtles. There was Dr. Ziccardi was initially very cautious, noting that turtles just wash up dead this time of year and that they showed no oil. Some blamed shrimpers. OnEarth, the NRDC blog, says that Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP) estimates fishermen kill 25,000 sea turtles each year.  And that’s way down from a decade ago, before the mandated Turtle Exclusion Device, when 86,000 were wiped out.

Now Dr. Ziccardi he’s contemplating something more insidious: that they are injesting the oil but it doesn’t show up on the outside. “Marine mammals and sea turtles are much more likely to have less apparent external exposure and greater internal exposure than avian species,” he wrote on his blog. Animals that don’t show oil can have internal oil damage. Sometimes you can see it in their feces but others have “sub-apparent internal exposure.” You can find that by looking for microscopic toxin damage or chemical analysis, he says.

Kemp’s Ridley’s are critically endangered and only found in the gulf and on the east coast. They’re carnivorous bottom-feeders, exactly what you don’t want to be in this oil spill. It’s the smallest sea turtle, nests during the day and en masse at sites called arribadas. In 1947 42,000 nested in one day near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. That fell to 5,00, but has climbed up to 7,866 in 2006. They nest at Padre Island, TX, too, but only 127 nests were counted in 2007.

A big set back was a 1979 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Ixtoc I,  that’s a lot like Deepwater Horizon. the Blow Out Preventer failed. The spill was slow moving. Relatively few dead animals were found. Though the direct link was never found, the Times says, the population went way down.

All seven species of sea turtle are either endangered or threatened and five live in the Gulf of Mexico, the Parks Service says. The other big threat to sea turtles is people stealing the eggs and eating the females when they go ashore to lay them. It’s mostly outlawed, but just this week Mexican cops caught two guys with 5,800 eggs near Acapulco.  In Denespar, Indonesia, cops confiscated 71 huge, endangered green sea turtles about to be served as food in a stall, the AP reports. The Jakarta Post says they also just caught men smuggling 12,000 turtle eggs in cigarette cartons aboard a ferry.

Looks like we might not have oiled birds being soaped up for camera, but something much slower and grimmer.

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