For sea turtles, so many ways to die
Sea turtles are amazing in so many ways.
Whoever coined the phrase “slow as a turtle” never met the marine variety. Under water, their powerful front flippers allow them to swim as fast as a wolf can run on land. These are ancient creatures, with ancestors appearing 100 to 110 million years ago. Like whales and dolphins, their evolutionary journey started in the ocean, included a sojourn on land, and then ended back in the sea.
Unlike these marine mammals, sea turtles retain an unbreakable link to land. Every sea turtle alive crawled on land before it swam in the sea, for that’s where they are born, in nests on beaches. For most males, the time on land can be measured in minutes, if not seconds. Females return to the beach they came from — sometimes swimming thousands of miles — to dig their nests and a lay a clutch of eggs.
Sea turtles have been in the news a lot lately — and the news always seems to be bad. Turtles in the Gulf of Mexico covered in oil. Reports of sea turtles burned alive, caught in the so-called “controlled-burns” on the ocean surface. Nearly a thousand nests relocated away from oil-clotted beaches, where, if allowed to hatch, they would almost certainly die from the effects of oil.
The massive and ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf poses so many threats to sea turtles that, as the National Wildlife Federation’s Doug Inley said on the radio program Fresh Air yesterday, “We have the possibility that this year’s crop of sea turtle hatchlings will not survive…”
The danger is particularly acute for the world’s rarest sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley. Ridleys are sometime known as the “Gulf’s sea turtle” because it is the only species found exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1947, scientists filmed an estimated 40,000 females nesting on a single beach in Mexico. After decades of intense human exploitation (everything from eating the turtle eggs to destroying nesting habitat to drowning in trawl nets) the ridley population had dropped to just 702 nests by 1985. These numbers made a turnaround in recent years, following heroic conservation efforts by Mexico and the U.S.
Dr. Donna Shaver, chief of sea turtle science at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, told me in May that there were likely tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of Kemp’s ridleys in the Gulf.
“This could be an endangered species success story,” Shaver said.
All those years of hard work may be undone by the oil disaster. One of the ridley’s favorite foraging areas is off the Louisiana coast, just west of the Mississippi River, where oil has now come ashore.
The fate of the loggerhead sea turtle is also in jeopardy. In March, the U.S. government recommended that more be done to protect loggerheads, whose numbers had been plummeting. The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed changing the status of loggerheads from “threatened” to the more serious “endangered.” The recommendation came one month before the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It is clear that loggerheads deserve and require the increased protection that comes from designating the species as endangered. In light of the devastation from the oil disaster, even the highest status is likely to prove insufficient to keep sea turtles and other animals from sliding into extinction, as long as our addiction to oil continues.
Maybe gas stations should be required to display on their pumps, pictures like the one below. That way, if we choose to keep driving down the road we’re on, at least we’ll have to see the consequences of that decision.
The National Park Service (NPS) is seeking information from the public about the death of a nesting female loggerhead turtle that was struck and killed by an off-road vehicle (ORV) during the night-time hours between June 23 and June 24. The turtle had crawled out of the ocean and attempted to lay a nest between Ramps 70 and 72 on Ocracoke Island. The turtle was hit by an ORV and dragged approximately 12 feet, causing fatal injuries to the turtle. It is believed to be the first time a nesting sea turtle has been killed by an ORV at the Seashore.
The animal was found dead by NPS turtle patrol at 6:10 a.m. on June 24. NPS law enforcement rangers are investigating the incident. The incident is believed to have occurred during the early morning hours of June 24 in violation of the posted night-driving restriction. Because the Seashore is nesting habitat for three species of Federally-listed threatened or endangered seas turtles (loggerheads are listed as threatened), under the court approved consent decree ORVs are prohibited on the beach from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. during the turtle nesting season. The vehicle that struck and killed the turtle is likely to be a four-wheel drive sport utility vehicle (SUV) or pick-up truck.