Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Proves Deadly for Sea Turtles

Oceana, the world’s largest international ocean conservation organization, released a new report that finds the Deepwater Horizon oil spill extremely dangerous for sea turtles inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, sea turtles can become coated in oil or inhale volatile chemicals when they surface to breathe, swallow oil or contaminated prey, and swim through oil or come in contact with it on nesting beaches.

“Sea turtles can suffer both internal and external injuries from contact with oil or chemical dispersants,” said Elizabeth Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at Oceana. “In addition to regulating bycatch in commercial fisheries and protecting critical habitat areas, the U.S. government can now add ‘preventing future oil spills’ to its list of essential sea turtle protections.”

Five of the world’s seven sea turtle species inhabit the Gulf of Mexico for some portion of their lives. These species (green, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and loggerhead) are all listed as either “threatened” or “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

As of June 9, 32 oiled sea turtles have been found in the Gulf of Mexico and more than 320 sea turtles have been found dead or injured since the spill began April 20. While some dead and injured sea turtles are found by search crews or wash up on the beach, many others do not.

In fact, ocean currents often carry these animals out to sea where they can sink or be eaten by predators.

“Our use of oil and gas is causing climate change and making our oceans more acidic,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director at Oceana. “As if that was not bad enough, it’s now killing endangered species. Americans can never be fully compensated for the loss of national treasures like sea turtles, caused by unnecessary and careless offshore drilling.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill can have the following impacts on sea turtles:

• Oil or dispersants on the sea turtle’s skin and body can cause skin irritation, chemical burns and infections.
• Inhalation of volatile petroleum compounds and dispersants can damage the respiratory tract and lead to diseases such as pneumonia.
• Ingesting oil or dispersants can cause injury to the gastrointestinal tract, which may affect the animals’ ability to absorb or digest food.
• Inhaled or ingested chemicals can damage liver, kidney and brain function, cause anemia and immune suppression, or lead to reproductive failure or death.
• Oil on developing sea turtle nests can increase egg mortality and lead to potential deformities in the hatchlings that do survive.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill could also destroy important sea turtle habitat areas such as seagrass beds and coral reefs, as well as reduce food availability.

Oceana is urging the Obama administration to ban further offshore drilling immediately and permanently. Oceana is also urging the government to determine the cumulative impact of human activities on sea turtles and reduce the number of sea turtles harmed to a level that will allow recovery of sea turtle populations.

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From NOAA:

Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals (effective June 10, 2010)

A total of 351 sea turtles have been verified from April 30 to June 10 within the designated spill area from the Texas/Louisiana border to Apalachicola, Florida. Between Wednesday June 9, and Thursday June 10, 16 dead turtle strandings were verified (15 from Mississippi and one from Louisiana). On Thursday, the turtle search and rescue operation led by NOAA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other partners working under the Wildlife Branch of the Unified Command collected three live heavily-oiled sea turtles and one dead heavily-oiled sea turtle from the Gulf of Mexico.

The live turtles were brought for cleaning and rehabilitation to the Audubon Wildlife Center outside New Orleans. They joined 25 other live captured turtles from previous Unified Command on-water rescues already in rehabilitation. A total of 42 stranded or captured turtles have had visible evidence of external oil since verifications began on April 30. These include the 34 captured turtles from the on-water operation (28 living, three collected dead and three died in rehab), four live stranded sea turtles (two caught in skimming operations) and four dead stranded sea turtles. All others have not had visible evidence of external oil.

Of the 351 turtles verified from April 30 to June 10, a total of 293 stranded turtles were found dead, 24 stranded alive. Three of those subsequently died. Four live stranded turtles have been released, and 17 live stranded turtles are being cared for at rehabilitation centers. There are a total of 45 turtles in rehabilitation. Turtle strandings during this time period have been higher in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle than in previous years for this same time period. This may be due in part to increased detection and reporting, but this does not fully account for the increase.

From April 30 to June 10, 39 stranded dolphins have been verified in the designated spill area. Of this, 37 dolphins stranded dead and two stranded alive. One of those dolphins died on the beach and the other that stranded alive in Florida was euthanized. So far, two of the 39 stranded dolphins had evidence of external oil. However, we are unable at this time to determine whether the animals were externally oiled before or after death. Since April 30, the stranding rate for dolphins in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle has been higher than the historic numbers for the same time period in previous years.

In part, this may be due to increased detection and reporting and the lingering effects of an earlier observed spike in strandings for the winter of 2010.

A stranding is defined as a dead or debilitated animal that washes ashore or is found in the water. NOAA and its partners are analyzing the cause of death for the dead stranded and dead captured sea turtles and the stranded marine mammals.

Source: NOAA

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