GALVESTON – Scientists from the United States and Mexico will congregate in Brownsville starting Tuesday to discuss an unexpected setback for the official Texas sea turtle, which had been making a remarkable recovery from near extinction.
Results will be revealed about declines in the population of the world’s most endangered sea turtle at the Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium. The symposium had been scheduled for next year to mark the 30th anniversary of the first international symposium but was moved up a year because of disturbing trends.
“Given the increasing concerns about the status of the species, the lack of growth we’ve seen in the population, that, I thought, was enough reason to move the meeting up and have it as soon as possible,” said Pamela Plotkin, director of the Texas Sea Grant College Program and associate research professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University at College Station.
The first symposium in Galveston in 1985 came at a time when the Kemp’s ridley was at the edge of extinction and efforts to protect the main nesting grounds in Mexico seemed to make little difference. A series of new efforts followed the symposium, including new laws protecting the turtles from being killed by fishermen. The efforts began to show signs of success by 2000, and by the middle of the last decade the population was increasing by 12 to 17 percent per year.
Then in 2010, a fiery explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 workers and dumped an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil boiled into the Gulf just as the Kemp’s ridley nesting season got underway. Oil fouled the area near Louisiana where female turtles normally forage after nesting at the main nesting grounds in Mexico or along the Texas Gulf Coast. Scientists found scores of dead Kemp’s ridley juveniles floating in oil scum in the deep sea among clumps of seaweed. Kemp’s ridley turtles spend the first year of their lives floating at sea in islands of sargassum seaweed.
Scientists count the number of nests laid by sea turtles to determine their long-term prospects rather than estimating the species population. Although the number of nests set a record in 2012, the trend has been downward since 2010 and scientists are worried.
Presentations at the symposium may help explain whether the oil spill is connected to the Kemp’s ridley decline. Donna Shaver, chief of the U.S. Park Service’s sea turtle science division at Padre Island National Seashore, is one of three scientists involved in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment on the Kemp’s ridley since the BP spill. Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Laboratory director at Texas A&M University at Galveston, will make public at the symposium for the first time results of research about the turtles’ eating habits.
Reich said she and other researchers signed confidentiality agreements so that the information would not be made public before it could be used in court proceedings seeking damages from BP.
Shaver has superimposed the tracks of turtles tagged with satellite transmitters on maps of the oil spill. Under her direction, blood and tissue samples also were taken from turtles that died soon after hatching and from eggs that never developed to check for evidence of oil.
Reich and her team have been examining the carapace, or shell, of turtles to look for signs of oil that might have been ingested.
Plotkin cautioned that the oil spill may not be the only culprit. Among other possible problems are excessive amounts of fresh water dumped into the Gulf by the Mississippi River and a decline in the number of blue crabs that Kemp’s ridleys rely on for food.
“All of those things could have come together as a perfect storm,” she said.
Another reason for a second international symposium is a widely held misperception among public officials that the Kemp’s ridley is no longer at risk, Plotkin said.
“My concern is that there isn’t enough of a rallying cry that there were problems being seen on the ground and that the species was really beginning to slide back,” Plotkin said.
An example of seemingly unaware officials is the decision earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end its annual $150,000 funding of the Mexico/U.S. Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Population Restoration Project at a time when it’s needed more than ever, she said. Fish and Wildlife said at the time that funding was cut as a result of sequestration, an across-the-board federal budget cut that went into effect last year after Congress failed to reach a budget agreement. The Gulf of Mexico Marine Fisheries Commission, with representatives from each of the five Gulf states, agreed to make up the lost funding for this year, but there is no money promised from any source for next year.
“For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to pull the funding is an insult,” said Carol Allen, Gulf office director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, who will be among the few non-scientists speaking at the symposium.
Allen, who has spent more than 30 years fighting to save the Kemp’s ridley, said the sudden lack of government support was disheartening. Before,
“I just believed we could work, we could raise money, we could save the turtles,” Allen said. “Now I don’t know. They are in a decline. I’m not as optimistic now.”
Read the full article in the Houston Chronicle here.