PENSACOLA BEACH — An effort to save thousands of sea turtle hatchlings from dying in the oily Gulf of Mexico will begin in the coming weeks in a desperate attempt to keep an entire generation of threatened species from vanishing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will coordinate the plan, which calls for collecting about 70,000 turtle eggs in up to 800 nests buried in the sand across Florida Panhandle and Alabama beaches.
It’s never been done on such a massive scale. But doing nothing, experts say, could lead to unprecedented deaths. There are fears the turtles would be coated in oil and poisoned by crude-soaked food.
“This is an extraordinary effort under extraordinary conditions, but if we can save some of the hatchlings, it will be worth it as opposed to losing all of them,” said Chuck Underwood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We have a much higher degree of certainty that if we do nothing and we allow these turtles to emerge and go into the Gulf and into the oil ... that we could in fact lose most of them, if not all of them,” he added. “There’s a chance of losing a whole generation.”
Dozens of workers are fanned out across the coast marking turtle nests, most of them threatened loggerheads, which nest largely along Florida Panhandle and Alabama beaches.
Another turtle danger
Gulf turtles are also a chief concern for two environmental groups who filed formal notice this week of their intention to sue BP, the Coast Guard and a string of federal agencies involved in the oil cleanup. They contend the practice of corraling and torching oil at sea was being conducted without first adequately checking for turtles and likely claiming hundreds of them, including endangered Kemp’s ridleys.
Turtle researchers and rescue crews admit they haven’t recovered charred remains or witnessed turtle deaths. But they said BP’s burn crews target oil clumped with huge mats of floating seaweed called sargassum that attract turtles and a host of other sea life — sometimes in the same weed lines from which they’ve just pulled dozens of turtles.
“It’s the most inhumane thing I have ever heard, to light that oil when there are some things out there trying to escape it,” said Carole Allen, Gulf director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. The Texas group filed the 60-day notice to sue under the Endangered Species Act along with the Center for Biological Diversity, based in San Francisco.
BP spokesman Toby Odone said the company could not comment on any threatened litigation. But he said after the concerns surfaced earlier this month, the company and federal response agencies agreed to “embed” an independent biologist to assess any potential impacts on sea turtles and suggest steps to reduce them.
“It’s not absolutely clear if there is a risk to turtles,” Odone said, but “when this issue was raised, the response was to evaluate to see if it was a problem.”
Moving the eggs
As for the turtle eggs, in about 10 days, they will begin the arduous process of excavating the nests, mostly by hand. The digging must be slow and delicate — aside from making sure the shells don’t crack, the eggs can’t be rolled around or repositioned to protect the embryo inside.
Then the eggs will be carefully placed in specially designed Styrofoam containers, like coolers, along with sand and moisture to mimic the natural nest. The containers will then be trucked about 500 miles east to a temperature-controlled warehouse at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
There, the eggs will remain until hatchlings emerge, and they will be placed one-by-one on Florida’s east coast, where the turtles can swim oil-free into the Atlantic Ocean.
Loggerhead eggs incubate for about 60 days before hatching. Turtles will soon start hatching and continue emerging over the next several months.
“There’s a whole lot of unknowns in what we’re doing,” Underwood acknowledged, noting many of the hatchlings could die anyway because of the stressful moving process.
They’ve already suffered
All of the sea turtles that venture into Gulf waters have already suffered because of commercial fishing and habitat loss. Endangered Kemp’s ridleys, which are nesting on beaches in Mexico and Texas, have washed up by the dozens dead along Gulf beaches since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that has gushed up to 130 million gallons of oil into the sea.
Some of the dead turtles were oiled, while others showed no outward signs of crude and are being tested to determine what killed them. The Kemp’s ridleys aren’t in as immediate of danger because oil hasn’t been washing ashore yet in their nesting places in the western Gulf. But some fear those hatchlings also could eventually make it into the crude.
Threatened loggerheads, which are currently being considered for the added protection of endangered status, also have been found oiled and dead since the spill started, along with leatherbacks and green turtles.
Casualties thus far
Through Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had recovered 436 dead sea turtles from the coastline and four on the water. An additional 147 have been recovered alive, including 101 on the water.
Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration’s executive director, said there is no way to tell how many turtles might have been burned alive, but with the Kemp’s ridley nesting season wrapping up along the Mexico and Texas coasts, thousands of breeding adults are in the Gulf working their way toward feeding grounds in the Atlantic, along with still more juveniles.
Steiner said the same currents and winds that steer seaweed, fish and sea turtles through the Gulf also act on the slick, pushing poisonous oil into the same place where sea life gathers. Rescue crews pulling turtles out had watched crews burn the same drifting weed lines, which can stretch for miles, where they had been finding turtles.
“It’s not a theory,” he said. “That’s where they are. We know this.”
The Associated Press and Miami Herald contributed to this report.