January 4, 2011


Sea turtles are the last of our world’s ancient reptiles, and have been swimming the seas for more than 200 million years, since back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. But in just the last few decades, hunting, coastal development, fishing and pollution have reduced their populations to dangerously low levels, to the point that sea turtles are now endangered. That is why many of us, including our young environmental reporter Alana G., were very worried about the fate of the sea turtles when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened in the Gulf last year.

The very good news is that the rescue efforts were quite successful. NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), the Gulf states, many nonprofit partners and the Gulf fishermen teamed up to rescue more than 400 sea turtles from oiled waters and take them to aquariums and other facilities for de-oiling and rehabilitation. Marine biologists even moved more than 25,000 sea turtle eggs to Florida’s Atlantic coast, so that the hatchlings would make their way from their sandy nests to clean water. More than 96 percent of the 400 sea turtles brought into rehabilitation have survived, and most of them have already been returned to the wild. This is great news!

Unfortunately, scientists also learned something disturbing from the Gulf oil spill. Most of the dead turtles that turned up on the beaches did not have oil on their bodies and necropsies (that is what you call the autopsy of an animal) showed that they were in good health prior to their death. It appears that the majority of these 600 turtles died from drowning, after being trapped in fishing gear.

So now a new effort begins, to make fishing equipment more "turtle proof" in the Gulf, where five of the world’s seven species of marine turtles live. In order to protect this species and get them off the endangered list, NOAA is considering establishing a rule requiring fishermen to use TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices). These escape hatches allow sea turtles to swim out of the shrimp skimmers so they don’t drown. As NOAA and the states continue to assess the natural resources damaged by the spill, we are gaining a much clearer picture of what we need to do long-term to protect these glorious, ancient creatures. 

Posted by: Seymour Simon

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