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Ports and shipping threaten sea turtle beaches

About 25 sea turtle symposium delegates gathered to share concerns about the growing number of port expansions and increased shipping traffic in sea turtle habitat around the world at a ports and shipping discussion hosted by Sea Turtle Restoration Project at the international symposium in Brisbane, Australia.

Among the most troubling projects are located on the East Coast of India in Orissa and in Northwest Australia. A large industrial port at Dhamra in Orissa is just one of 30 new ports planned for the coastline where olive ridleys nest im mass arribadas. While most of the controversy to date has focused on Dhamra where environmental review has been sidelined in favor of corporate profits, sea turtle biologists and activists from the region explain that there are many more coming down the pike that could spell bad news for the future of the sea turtles. The lighting, dredging, noise and disturbance of the port construction project alone could disrupt life cycles.

In northwest Western Australia, Chevron plans to build a new LNG processing plant and vessel terminal smack on top of rare Australian flatback habitat (see photo of flatback.). While Chevron is making some attempt to study these sea turtles, it’s clear that the company¬† plans to build no matter what. Right now flatbacks nest on Barrow Island where Chevron has been operating about 50 oil rigs in the middle of the island. Crude oil is pumped through a pipeline 4 miles off shore to tankers. The sea turtles seem to be surviving despite the development, though no studies have ever been done to see if the industrial facility has caused any problems.

The new project would add a huge processing plant for natural gas found offshore in the Gorgon Gas fields. The gas would then be pumped offshore to waiting ships. It will be a huge project that is very likely to disperse the flatback population, but again, no long-term studies have been done to see what the problems might be.

Worse, the entire coast of Western Australia is threated by plans for 50 new industrial port and mining projects that could forever remove sea turtle habitat as well as destroy other marine life, ancient land species and Aborignal sacred sites.

During the discussion, people pointed out other areas where ports and shipping intersect with sea turtles. In Malaysia, a LNG port is located right next to a sea turtle nesting beach. When hatchlings leave the nest, they tend to veer down the beach towards the flares of the gas plant smokestacks or the ship lighting instead of to the sea. They won’t live long if they use energy going the wrong direction.

In California, leatherback sea turtles were found congregating in shipping lanes outside the Golden Gate near San Francisco; and in San Diego increased cruise ship traffic could be a problem for sea turtles using the coastal waters there.

All agreed that the sea turtle community needed to assess the impacts to sea turtles from ports and shipping and develop guidelines based on research and existing science to develop international guidelines to prevent harm. Each location will need specific analysis, but a general framework is needed to address lighting, dregding, noise, disturbance, ship dumping, ship speeds in sea turtle habitat, destruction of nesting habitat, invasive species from ballast water, chemicals from hull fouling, and many other operational impacts.

As a first step, we will set up a listserv to share information and plan to conduct a session or sessions at the next ISTS in India next year. I look forward to moving this issue forward and engaging the sea turtle community in this international effort.