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Endangered Turtles Face New BP Danger

July 30, 2010

PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, Tex. - As thousands of tiny sea turtles were released to the Gulf of Mexico this summer, volunteers have worried about a new threat to their survival - oil. Normally, the Kemp's ridley turtles struggle to survive against predators, and only a fraction return to the Gulf beaches to lay eggs of their own, but this mating season, the BP oil spill is subtracting even more odds from their survival.

Dr. Donna Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, has been working to save the endangered Kemp's ridley turtle for 30 years. She and her volunteers have released nearly 8,000 hatchlings this season, 1,000 just this week, and never forgot the added challenge these animals will face in oil-clouded water.

"It's a tough life for a hatchling out there. Predators - birds, fish - take their toll; this is one more threat to these animals and we hope the best for them."

Scientists say the odds are stacked against the Kemp's ridley. Under natural conditions, between one in 100 and one in 1,000 eggs will produce a turtle that survives to adulthood. At best, they predict a few will return to Padre Island in 10 to 15 years with the oil lurking in the waters.

Shaver says the decision was made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to move the incubating eggs elsewhere, perhaps to the east coast of Florida for hatching, as was done in the case of some other species.

"We hope for the best. We hope that our trajectory of increase is not tremendously impacted, but we don't know and we are fearful."

Turtle experts say last year's "class" of turtles who didn't make it out of the Gulf used floating seaweed to hide in from natural predators. But, this year that seaweed has soaked up oil from the spill and much of it is being burned off as part of the recovery process, cooking the turtles.

"Yes, we are troubled with the oil spill. We're worried that we know Kemp's ridley turtles are being killed. Some juveniles have been killed. We don't know what the impacts to the population are going to be. That remains to be seen in the future."

Adult Kemp's ridley turtles live off the coast of Georgia and Florida in the colder months and off Delaware in the summer. While the number of nests was down this year compared to last, experts blame the natural cycle and a cold winter, not the oil spill. They also say the turtle population has rebounded well since the mid 1980s - when only about 700 nests were found - to almost 20,000 last year.

The spill caused many to question releasing the hatchlings into the Gulf. But, seashore scientists say the releases were required because not doing so could hinder their natural instincts, and not allow them to return to the place of their birth to lay eggs one day.

Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service - CT