Sea turtles and the Gulf oil spill

Meet NOAA’s Barbara Schroeder


One year after the devastating Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, Barbara Schroeder, NOAA Fisheries national sea turtle coordinator, reflects on what we know about the effects of the spill on Gulf sea turtles, what was done to reduce the spill’s damaging effects and the ongoing research to assess the longer-term impact on turtle populations.

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Schroeder and Lubchenco.

Barbara Schroeder, NOAA Fisheries national sea turtle coordinator, left, and NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco release a rehabilitated Kemp's ridley sea turtle off Cedar Key on the west coast of Florida on Aug. 18, 2010. The sea turtle was rescued from oiled waters during the spill and rehabilitated at Audubon Nature Institute in Louisiana.

(Photo credit: With permission from Phil Sandlin, Associated Press.)

It’s been a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Can you describe what we know about the major effects from the spill on Gulf of Mexico sea turtles?

The most direct effects that NOAA and our partners have documented so far are the turtles that we helped rescue from oiled waters, primarily offshore. Many of these turtles were covered in oil and were potentially eating oiled crabs and other food found in the Sargassum algae habitat where they were found. [Editor’s note: Read the 2010 web feature story about the large-scale rescue and rehabilitation effort.]

Between May and September 2010, 461 live sea turtles were rescued and brought to rehabilitation centers run by our partners in the Gulf states. Of these, all but approximately 40 still in need of rehabilitation have been returned to the wild. However, the longer-term, less visible effects of the oil on sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and the total number of turtles affected by oil remains to be determined and will be much harder to investigate.

Schroeder.

Barbara Schroeder, NOAA Fisheries national sea turtle coordinator, holds a large Kemp's ridley sea turtle captured as part of a study off the coast of Florida. The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is one of four species of endangered Gulf of Mexico sea turtles.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Which species of sea turtles were found stranded and rescued during the oil spill? 

Four of the five species of sea turtles found in the Gulf of Mexico were rescued or found stranded during the oil spill: the Kemp’s ridley, green, loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles. The fifth species, the leatherback, also inhabits the Gulf of Mexico, and scientists documented numerous sightings of leatherbacks in the spill area.

What research is NOAA and its federal and state partners conducting to assess the short- and long-term effects of the oil spill on sea turtles?

Through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a number of studies are underway to monitor turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, including surveys of nesting turtles and their eggs, aerial surveys to assess the distribution, species composition, and size of turtle populations, and surveys capturing and assessing turtles in the water.

Besides events like oil spills, what other human actions are negatively affecting the long-term survival of sea turtles?

The primary human cause of sea turtle deaths in the Gulf of Mexico is bycatch, the unintended capture of turtles in fishing gear. Bycatch of turtles in shrimp trawls, if turtle excluder devices are not required or properly used, is a leading cause of sea turtle deaths.

Turtles are often caught accidentally in other fishing gear, including longlines and gillnets. They are sometimes struck and killed by boats and ships, especially near ports, marinas and navigation channels. Habitat loss and pollution also threaten sea turtles.

Video.

VIDEO: In this 2010 video, Retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon Response; NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco; NOAA National Sea Turtle Coordinator Barbara Schroeder; and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Meghan Koperski discuss how NOAA and FWS are striving to ensure fish and wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico are rebounding from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill..

Download here (Credit:NOAA)

We read that there has been a recent increase in dead sea turtle strandings in the northern Gulf this year. What might be causing this and is it linked to the oil spill?

We’re closely monitoring a significant increase in strandings since mid-March, particularly in Mississippi. As of April 14, we had documented 194 dead stranded turtles since January 2011 in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. We’ve done necropsies (animal autopsies) on 26 turtles recovered in Mississippi in March and found no visible external or internal oil. There’s an article on the NOAA Fisheries website about the increase in dead dolphins and sea turtles that sheds more light.

What is the general outlook for the five species of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico?

Four of the five species in the Gulf of Mexico are endangered, and one, the loggerhead, is threatened. Species listed under the Endangered Species Act are already vulnerable when disasters occur. Species recovery requires rebuilding animal populations, and setbacks — such as oil spills, unintentional catch of turtles in fishing operations and collisions with vessels — can delay that recovery. 

Check out this collection of photos of Gulf sea turtles.

Check out this collection of photos of Gulf sea turtles.

Click here (Credit:NOAA)

How did the oil spill affect ongoing partnerships to restore and recover sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico?

The heightened focus on sea turtles in the northern Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill raised awareness of the presence of these animals and the need to conserve them and address human-caused threats. We are hopeful that a more focused, coordinated approach to sea turtle conservation and monitoring will result and improve their survival and recovery outlook.

What can the average person do to help support the health and longevity of these treasured animals?
 

We urge the public to become informed about sea turtles and the problems they face. People can consider supporting nonprofit groups that work to conserve sea turtles. These organizations support laws and actions that protect sea turtles, locally, nationally and in international locations, such as Mexico, where some Gulf of Mexico turtles live and feed during their life cycles. And, if you should find a stranded or injured turtle, I urge you to please contact your state wildlife agency.
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For the most up to date numbers of sea turtle strandings and information about rescues, please visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles. You can view a gallery of Gulf sea turtle photos by visiting http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/gallery/images/category/deepwater_horizon_sea_turtles.html.

Posted April 19, 2011 NOAA logo.