By Harvey Rice
GALVESTON – Scientists and sea turtle advocates worry that the unusually large influx of sargassum onto Gulf Coast beaches is posing a threat to endangered turtles and could be causing their nests to be smothered or crushed by beach cleaning equipment.
The worry is for two endangered species of sea turtles, green and Kemp’s ridleys. Juvenile green turtles typically live among rafts of sargassum that drift through the Gulf of Mexico. Normally the rafts don’t come ashore with turtles on board, but this year the sargassum is carrying turtles with it onto the beach where they could be scooped up by beach cleaning machinery, said Joanie Steinhaus, spokeswoman for the Galveston office of the Sea Turtle Restoration project.
Since May 10, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which keeps track of turtles washed ashore, has found 20 live and 23 dead green turtles on the beach among the sargassum, said Andy Krauss, research assistant at the service’s Galveston office.
The onslaught of seaweed, which sometimes makes walls several feet high on the beach, is also coming ashore during the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting season, which ends in mid-July. Volunteers organized by Steinhaus are patrolling the beaches daily looking for turtle nests so the eggs can be collected and sent for incubation to the Padre Island National Seashore.
Steinhaus said volunteers complain that beach cleaning machinery may be covering up the telltale turtle tracks that lead to nests. Steinhaus and Kimberly Reich, director of the Turtle Research Lab at Texas A&M University at Galveston, worry that heavy machinery may be covering up turtle nests or even crushing them.
Beach cleaning permits last year required that turtle watchers be hired to walk in front of beach cleaning machinery to ensure the safety of turtles and nests. This year, permits require only that permit holders abide by a list of best seaweed-removal practices.
Nevertheless, the Park Board has hired six turtle monitors, said Galveston Park Board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun, but the Park Board is only responsible for the beaches in front of the sea wall and city-owned or maintained beaches. Private contractors clean the beaches in front of private property on large portions of Galveston Island. Steinhaus said at least one private contractor told her that the heavy equipment operator was also the turtle monitor. She doubted that it would be possible to spot turtles or nests from the seat of a front-end loader. Private contractors were not immediately available for comment.
Reich doubts that the turtle monitors are able to spot all the turtles and nests because of the huge volume of seaweed. “I still think we are losing turtles and I still think we are having nests covered up because of the shear mass they are having to clear,” Reich said.
Steinhaus and Reich said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has responsibility for turtles after they reach land, was working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about stricter enforcement of the beach cleaning permits. Although the permits are issued by local government, the Corps of Engineers is charged with enforcement.
In an emailed response, Alicia Rea, project manager for the compliance branch for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District, said, “The district is working with federal and non-federal partners to evaluate the conditions and identify a way forward that would enable the removal or repositioning of the seaweed while minimizing risks to the environment and habitat in accordance with federal laws.”
Note: An earlier version of this story contained outdated information about beach cleaning permit requirements. Permits do not now require trained turtle monitors.
Read online at the Houston Chronicle.