Help Stop Sending Kemp’s Ridley Turtle Hatchlings Into the Gulf Oil Spill

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project Wants to Rescue Hatchlings Headed into the Gulf Oil Spill

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to let 5,000 of the world’s smallest and most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley, blithely swim straight from the Texas beaches where they’ll hatch over the next week right into the worst oil slick in U.S. history. The Sea Turtle Restoration wants the feds (who already have the eggs in incubators) to hold the hatchlings until the gulf is cleaner. So they’re asking Americans looking for a way to help out in the gulf to push the government to rescue them. And if that doesn’t work, they may sue to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is already transplanting 70,000 sea turtle eggs from Alabama and the Florida Panhandle to Florida’s Atlantic Coast. But those are mostly eggs of loggerheads, which live on both sides of Florida. Kemp’s ridley only lives in the Gulf–aside from a few stragglers and pioneers who swim up the east coast. So, you can’t just plop them down on at Atlantic beach–or at least not without years of bureaucratic discussion.

Carole Allen, Gulf Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, wants wildlife officials to let the 5,000-some Kemp’s ridley hatchlings they are incubating grow up in the shelter of an aquarium for a year or so. That procedure helped save this species after it was almost wiped out after another gulf oil spill,  the 1979  Ixtoc 1. And, coming off a court victory that forced BP to have biologists on board boats burning off oil to at least look for sea turtles, she’ll even consider a lawsuit.

Since many turtles have already been released this, Allen asks that just a portion be held in safety in case the disaster stretches on. “What is wrong with holding onto a couple thousand?” she asks. “There are rehab places around the country that now how to handle turtles,” although they would most likely be held in Galveston.

Like all sea turtles, the Kemp’s ridley has faced egg harvesting, habitat destruction and getting caught in shrimp nets. But this species is down to one main nesting beach in Mexico. After Ixtoc 1, thousands of eggs were transplanted to Texas (where some were known to nest) and given a year-long “head start” before release on San Padre Island. The species went from only about 300 female survivors to about 12,000 to 15,000 today, says Jeff George, curator of Sea Turtle, Inc.

“In five years they could have been downlisted from endangered to threatened,” says Allen. “And now we get this.”

George says head start has flaws. It’s expensive: in the 1980s it cost about $125 per turtle. That’s $246 in today’s dollars. And, he says, the results were marginal. Because of what biologist have learned about nutrition and turtle cannibalism, they may get better results now. The chairman of Sea Turtle, Inc., Dr. Patrick Burchfield, also proposed giving the turtles a longer head start–up to three years.

“I have very mixed emotions,” says George. “My personal opinion is, what’s the harm of trying? It could be a total disaster if the oil spill continues and spreads. Why not spend some money to keep these turtles out of the way?”

Others are more optimistic about Head Start and even think it made alumni stronger. The Parks Service, which helped with the program, says that Head Start “enhanced their survival rate by releasing  young turtles that were too big for most predators to eat as opposed to the natural process in which only one out of every one hundred hatchlings survive to maturity.”

Meanwhile, before anyone seemed to notice, nearly 300,000  Kemp’s ridley turtles have already taken off from their main Mexican beach, Rancho Nuevo. If one in 100 would make it, that would mean 3,000 fewer mating turtles in a few decades just from this year’s batch. Plus, shrimping season is about to begin and the hatchlings are too small to be caught in the turtle excluder devices that keep them out of nets, Allen says.

But so far the Fish and Wildlife Service–which would have to sign onto any plans to mess with an endangered species–isn’t signing onto a plan to step in. Dr. Donna Shaver, the sea turtle science and recovery chief at the national seashore, told the National Parks Traveler earlier this year that Kemp’s ridley turtles they track do end up in the spill area. But the youngsters forage off Florida. She’s told reporters that they thought about head starting the hatchlings, but decided they’d be better off put to sea.

Do you think BP and the federal government should shelter at least some of this year’s crop of endangered turtle hatchlings?

Tell senators and wildlife agents to stop releasing endangered hatchlings into the oiled gulf.

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2 comments to Help Stop Sending Kemp’s Ridley Turtle Hatchlings Into the Gulf Oil Spill

  • Hi, possibly i’m being a bit off topic here, but I was browsing your site and it looks exceptional. I’m making a blog and trying to make it look clean, but everytime I touch it I mess something up. Did you design the blog yourself? Could someone with little experience do it, and add updates without messing it up? Anyways, good information on here, very informative.

  • Thanks for calling attention to this issue. Yes, it costs money to save an endangered species such as sea turtles, but it seems like BP would need to pay the bill on saving some of this year’s hatchlings. When the Kemp’s ridleys were struggling to avoid extinction, hatchlings were raised by the National Marine Fisheries Service at Galveston, Texas, between 1978 and 1993, school children from all over America bought the turtle chow $4 at a time. I’m sure they would love to do it again if given the chance.