Beyond Politics: Oil, Water, Shrimp, and Sea Turtles

By Chris Mooney | May 5, 2010 7:52 am

ional_Seashore_-_Kemps_Ridley_Sea_Turtle_optThis is a guest post from Wallace J. Nichols, a marine scientist and oceans conservationist who in 1998 founded the Grupo Tortuguero, an international grassroots movement dedicated to restoring Pacific sea turtles and to sustainable management of ocean fisheries. He currently works with several universities and organizations to protect the oceans, including Ocean Revolution and the California Academy of Sciences.

My brave friend Leilani Munter called from the field to report that the National Wildlife Federation and CNN had documented the first sea turtle caught in a slick at sea, gasping for air through an iridescent sheen. Tragically, just as nesting season for a number of the Gulf of Mexico’s sea turtle species is set to begin, these highly endangered animals become the poster species of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Soon, if not already, adult male and female turtles will gather in shallow coastal waters, mate and prepare to nest, precisely where oil is accumulating. The pregnant females will scuttle across beaches at night to lay eggs, just as they’ve done for millions of years, but these beaches will be different—they will be blacked with oil. In a few short weeks, a new generation of hatchlings will emerge from the sand and make their way across oily beaches to an oily sea where tar balls and slicks will make their already-long odds of survival even longer. As they mature, they will have to rise through oil slicks to breathe and survive by eating oil-coated animals, algae and seagrass. While sea turtle will be among the most recognizable victims, they won’t be alone. Many species of birds, fish, invertebrates and plants will fare just as badly.

Even before the spill, sea turtles had it tough. US and Mexican trawlers drag nets across the sea floor in search of shrimp, but catch thousands of turtles by “accident.” Bright beach lighting deters pregnant female turtles as they come ashore to nest, or distracts hatchlings as they poke their heads from the sand looking for the sheltering sea. If they survive this gauntlet, plastic pollution might choke them or fills their guts with worthless, indigestible junk. Long-line hooks snag them by the thousands each year.

With the BP spill, many of the sea turtles’ remaining few ocean and coastal habitats will now be slathered in sticky, slippery, untamable oil. Ironically, these are the very same habitats where industries traditionally at odds with the sea turtles—tourism, oystermen, and shrimpers—make their livelihoods. Such an uncomfortably close tie between oil, seafood and wildlife is an everyday irony of the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, in early September, the people of Morgan City, Louisiana, will celebrate the 75th Annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival. (I am not making this up.) In the organizers’ own words, the event “will prove that oil and water really do mix.” But oil, water, shrimp and sea turtles don’t mix; they make a sticky, deadly stew.

What will happen next with the BP spill? No one knows for sure, but even the most optimistic scenarios provide little hope. Oceanographers who know the currents of the Gulf fear that the slick will wend around the tip of Florida. Meeting the Gulf Stream there, the oil make its way up the Atlantic seaboard, wrecking havoc along hundreds, perhaps thousands of additional miles of coast. All of the volunteers and sponges in the world won’t be enough to sop up this mess.

Like us, these endangered, ancient sea turtles are caught up in a disaster of someone else’s making. The timing is brutal for all. Things will likely get much worse, but there is some hope. The “turtle huggers,” like me, are legion … and dedicated. We care about our neighbors, passionately. It could take a while, but the work must get done. If you can’t be on the front line, please support those who are.

For our part, Fabien Cousteau and I are in El Salvador launching the Billion Baby Turtles Project in close partnership with our colleagues at FUNZEL, the premier wildlife conservation group protecting sea turtles in El Salvador. Over the next decade, we will release a billion baby turtles around the world, to help rebuild populations decimated by unchecked human activities, like egg collecting, bottom-trawling, and, of course, oil spills.

In the coming years, we’ll learn a lot about the impact of massive oil spills on sensitive species and ecosystems, as we do every time a spill like this happens. Study upon scientific study will be forthcoming. Hopefully, they and this crisis will lead us to the clean energy future. Meanwhile, wherever you are, I urge you to get beyond politics and fight for a clean, healthy, oil-free ocean for turtles, for fishermen, and for yourself.

And, of course, to fly your sea turtle flag high.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Marine Science

Comments (16)

  1. Clarification: Nichols is no longer a Senior Scientist with Ocean Conservancy, but works with several ocean organizations and graduate students through Ocean Revolution and the California Academy of Sciences. -O*R

  2. Pat Moffitt

    Some of the challenges to sea turtles are outlined above but the above post gives no relative risk- without which we squander valuable resources. Without a doubt the single greatest threat to sea turtles is bycatch from commerical fishing activities. Poaching, the parasitic heart fluke and a type of Herpes virus are also having severe consequences. While an oil free ocean is a worthy goal- oil is not one of the major turtle extinction threats. (See NOAAs 2003 Oil and Sea Turtles). Funding and research follow public attention—linking oil as a primary mission for sea turtle restoration– is counterproductive. Were all the sources of oil to stop today- the primary forces driving turtle species to population decline or extinction would not be halted. Stopping oil as a means to save turtles is a failed strategy. If you want to fight for turtles- fight to stop subsidies in commercial fisheries that drive over-capitalization, push TED type regulations, preserve habitat, fund research into turtle diseases and fund rescue work following cold snaps (which devastated the Florida and Gulf populations this winter.)

  3. Thanks for the post, Wallace and Chris. Information like this gets the concerns out into the light of day for discussion and action.

  4. Brian Too

    While in Costa Rica (some years ago) we discovered that they were taking extraordinary measures to protect the nesting sites. Essentially you aren’t allowed on the beaches alone due to the fear of egg poaching and nest destruction. This is for the protected beaches only of course.

  5. Good point Pat Moffit!

    We’ll have numbers on relative risk after this unprecedented oil spill event plays out.

    Meanwhile, shrimping and longlining kill thousands of sea turtles in the same region, as stated.

    “Even before the spill, sea turtles had it tough. US and Mexican trawlers drag nets across the sea floor in search of shrimp, but catch thousands of turtles by “accident.” Bright beach lighting deters pregnant female turtles as they come ashore to nest, or distracts hatchlings as they poke their heads from the sand looking for the sheltering sea. If they survive this gauntlet, plastic pollution might choke them or fills their guts with worthless, indigestible junk. Long-line hooks snag them by the thousands each year.”

  6. Wallace,
    Thanks for a great post, and good luck to you and Mr. Cousteau. I especially like how you clearly tied this spill back to the accumulation of threats – the more bad things that get put in the basket, so to speak, the harder it is to pick up the basket at all.

  7. I am feeling for the poor little birds that fly to the Jersey coast to feed on the horseshoe crabs this year. They use the gulf flyway to make their way up here. If this oil gets into the Gulf stream, the Atlantic coast is doomed.

  8. Where would I be able to get a sea turtle flag, would be happy to fly it in Colo. hopefully the money would go for animals needing help due to the spill

  9. At FROGS ARE GREEN we’re so upset and disgusted about the lost wildlife in the Gulf region for the past few posts we’ve dedicated a series to the types of life affected. The first in the series was on birds, the second was on turtles, and our third coming shortly is on dolphins. What a very sad situation.

    Susan

  10. Does anyone need help on the Billion Baby turtles Project, I do not see a site for this? I’d be happy to talk with you about creating the online presence.
    Susan

  11. Lyn

    how can we help the sea turtles – are there any volunteer locations? is there an emergency sea turtle erscue effor twebsite? I have been a sea turtle advocate most of my life, and this is the most disturbing situation – it is hardly able to bear. How can I help? I am in Michigan, but would travel if I can help..

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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