For those of us who have been lucky enough to watch a giant sea turtle lumber ashore and lay her eggs, or seen baby hatchlings scamper out of their nest back to the sea, the reasons to protect these gentle creatures are clear and compelling.
One of the most fascinating and also the most endangered sea turtle in the world is the Kemp’s ridley. This ancient species is the only sea turtle that arrives in mass nesting emergences during daylight hours, primarily on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Yet it spends most of its life in the coastal waters of the U.S. Gulf and Eastern Seaboard, feeding on crabs and shrimp as it migrates to places such as the Long Island Sound, storing up the nourishment it needs for its annual re-migration back to the southern Gulf to nest.
In one of our most important collaborative efforts to protect endangered sea turtles, Turtle Island
Restoration Network and Mexican activists convinced Mexico to close its notorious slaughterhouse on the Pacific Coast in 1990. This helped bring Mexico’s environmental standards in line with international norms supported by U.S. policies.
Now, 25 years later the tables have turned and it is the state of Louisiana that needs to follow Mexico’s lead in increasing protection for sea turtles.
In Mexico, the primary nesting site for the most endangered of all sea turtles, the Kemp’s ridley, is in the state of Tamaulipas, about 400 miles southwest of Houston. Here in 1947, 40,000 Kemp’s ridley nested in a single day.
Sadly, by the mid 1980s, nesting numbers had declined to about 700 in an entire year.
The Mexican government increased protection of Rancho Nuevo, a major Mexican Kemp’s ridley nesting beach located about 200 miles south of the U.S. border, with the assistance of the U.S. government. Equally important, both the U.S. and Mexico created no-shrimping, marine-protected areas in critical sea turtle habitat and began requiring the use of a trap door on shrimp nets to allow the sea turtles to escape drowning and entanglements in the deadly nets. Familiar to Texas shrimpers, these are called turtle excluder devices, or TEDs. These trap doors are simple, inexpensive devices that allowed the turtle population to begin to recover.
Also, in 1978 a new program began to establish a second nesting beach in the U.S. at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. Since then, 15,875 turtle eggs from Rancho Nuevo have hatched at Padre Island and were released into U.S. Gulf waters.
The success of this work helped bring Mexico’s environmental standards in line with international norms supported by U.S. policies.
Then came the devastating BP oil spill five years ago. Since then, the population of endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles has been on the decline.
Now more than ever, these small sea turtles need U.S. and international support to get back on the path of recovery. Louisiana should follow Mexico’s lead in increasing protection for sea turtles.
Unfortunately, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal refuses to allow state wardens to enforce the U.S Endangered Species Act TED requirements.
Without the use of TEDs, it is likely that more than 60,000 sea turtles of various species would drown every year in U.S. waters (the majority in the Gulf of Mexico). Today, most sea turtles drown in Louisiana waters and, due to ocean currents, are washed up on the Texas coast. Sadly, it seems that one is more likely to encounter a dead sea turtle than see the magnificent animals repeat their age-old nesting ritual.
Ironically, Jindal has used the Gulf oil spill as the excuse not to enforce TED laws, claiming shrimp fishers should be freed from this responsibility in the aftermath of the oil spill.
It is time for Jindal to take a lesson from Mexico, Texas and the other U.S. Gulf states and begin to enforce TED laws and create a no-shrimping, marine-protected area in Louisiana waters.
The fate of the Kemp’s ridley at this critical juncture may determine one of Jindal’s most important environmental legacies as the American public considers his viability as a contender in the 2016 presidential race.
Homero Aridjis, a Mexican novelist and poet and former Mexican ambassador, is president of the Group of 100, Mexico’s foremost ecology organization. Todd Steiner is director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, an international environmental organization with offices in Texas and California.