Environmental Threats: July 2010 Archives

kemp's ridley sea turtleThe BP oil spill threatens hundreds of different species, from crabs to dolphins to pelicans. However, the five species of sea turtles living in the Gulf of Mexico -- leatherback, hawksbill, green, loggerhead and Kemp's Ridley -- all of which were endangered or threatened before the BP oil spill, may be hit the worst. 200 dead turtles have been found along the Mississippi coast alone. The Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, which was critically endangered and the rarest sea turtle before this disaster, may have the hardest time surviving. As well as being hunted (in parts of Mexico, they are eaten and used for leather in making boots), they are susceptible to becoming entangled in shrimp-catching nets. But the oil spill has introduced many more threats that the turtles do not know exist and will have an even harder time avoiding.

Right now, the adult turtles are coming ashore to lay their eggs. The beaches on which they lay their eggs are now covered in oil, which is not good for the hatchlings. If the eggshells, which are soft and about the size of ping-pong balls, make contact with the oil, they weaken and there is less of a chance that the turtles will hatch. Even if they do, the hatchlings may be deformed. Those that live will have to cross the polluted beaches to get to the sea and then swim through the oil in the gulf waters. The Kemp's Ridley hatchlings are leaving their nesting grounds in Mexico to swim into the most contaminated part of the gulf, where their instinct to hide and eat amongst clumps of floating vegetation is leading them to clots of oil and polluted seaweed. Their instincts, which come from living in the ocean for over 100 million years, have taught them how to avoid predators like sharks but have not taught them how to cope with exploding oil wells.

No matter how old they are (many sea turtles live for 30 years), if a turtle is exposed to the oil for 4 days, their skin will peel off in sheets, a condition which lasts even after they have been cleaned and treated. The toxic chemicals cause diseases and damage to their livers, kidneys, and brains that might lead to the deaths of many of these animals. The oil also damages their chemoreceptors, which control their senses, making them unable to find prey, to know where their habitat is, or to understand movement. Because they moved farther inshore in their attempts to avoid the oil, they were eating fishing bait and consuming hooks. In June, 583 sea turtles were found in the contaminated area. 447 of these were already dead or died soon after they were discovered, and only 136 were taken to rescue centers. Worst of all, when BP tried setting some of the oil on fire, hundreds or possibly thousands of sea turtles were burnt and killed.

At least some efforts are being made to save the sea turtles. A qualified biologist will be aboard every boat involved in burning the oil to remove the turtles from the area. And 70,000 eggs from the different species of sea turtles are being carefully dug up from their burrows in the sand, because it is difficult to move or disturb the eggs without harming the embryos, and taken to a climate-controlled hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After they hatch -- if the oil doesn't flow around Florida to ruin the plan -- the turtles will be released in the clean waters of the Atlantic.

For thirty years before the spill, scientists, environmentalists, and volunteers have been trying to save sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. Their programs were working. For my sixth birthday, we drove to a Kemp's Ridley sea turtle hatchery in Galveston, Texas, the only one in the United States. Inside a rather small shack, we saw hatchlings, one-year-olds, two-year-olds, and huge three-year-olds in tubs being fed. It was not very impressive, but they were saving the turtles. We learned about the dangers faced by Kemp's Ridley and Leatherback sea turtles back then and today. People dumping garbage into the oceans is not a new issue, as is the fact that turtles choke on plastic squids used by fishermen to attract animals. If these turtles were in such danger before, now conservation is even more vital in these animals' survival.

Hopefully the conservation efforts will work and the turtles will continue to live healthily in clean water, but all of the other animals that live in the gulf face similar problems. This still leaking spill, which is even worse than the Exxon spill, is just another reminder that we need to work on green energy. We cannot continue to drill for oil and risk losing millions of animals as well as our own safety and the state of our world. The stories of these turtles and of all of the other, less well-known animals that are in danger need to prompt immediate action that will save our planet before it is too late.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Environmental Threats category from July 2010.

Environmental Threats: May 2010 is the previous archive.

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