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Chelonia mydas - Green Sea Turtle - Honu 2
Credit: Thomas Shahan (Thomas Shahan 3 on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Sea Turtle Week is June 16th - 20th, 2014. This celebration prompted me to research the current status of these precious creatures. Since the oil rig explosion in the Gulf, I've been wondering if sea turtles populations are recovering.

Turtle Rehabilitation June 2010Deepwater Horizon Response on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 GenericTwo months ago marked the 4-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. After reading the 19-page document prepared by the National Wildlife Federation titled Four Years Into the Gulf Oil Disaster: Still Waiting for Restoration, I came to a deeper understanding of how grave the situation is for sea turtles (and other marine and bird species).

Notably, in 2010 aerial surveys revealed that tens of thousands of sea turtles were exposed to oil in the Gulf. Between April 26th, 2010 and December 2011, over 1,000 sea turtles were stranded in the northern Gulf region. During the following three years, approximately 1,500 sea turtle carcasses were found in the area. 

By contrast, the NOAA said that historically the same area has fewer than a hundred sea turtle deaths per year. Unfortunately, the oil disaster will impact recovering sea turtle populations for decades.

Up next is a brief summary of the report that I found on YouTube (only 2:39) by RT America:

Oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon Disaster Continues Killing Wildlife

Yet Sea Turtles are Dying Elsewhere Too

Moon Jelly ("Aurelia Aurita")Jim G (jimg944 on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericIn a 2010 Marine Turtle Newsletter titled Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency, authors Colette Wabnitz from the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, AERL and Wallace J. Nichols of the California Academy of Sciences & OceanRevolution.org made me aware that plastic bags are often mistaken for jellyfish, something that sea turtles love to feed on.

All sea turtle species from around the world are affected by the ingestion of plastics. Interestingly enough, green and loggerhead sea turtles actually appear to seek out plastic to eat - sometimes mixed with food or singly (Lutz 1990). The problem is that even small amounts of plastic can obstruct the oesophagus, perforate the bowels, or cause other illnesses in sea turtles.

What I discovered from reading a paper in The Journal of Experimental Biology titled Opening and closing mechanisms of the Leatherback sea turtle larynx: a crucial role for the tongue was that turtles cannot regurgitate food. The floor of their pharynx has prominent longitudinal ridges and spines that point towards their tail.

I gather this means that anything that gets in their mouth will be pulled down their throat.

Sea Turtle
Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

The following award-winning video show the extraordinary efforts of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists and rescuers to lessen any harm to the Gulf's sea turtles. Handheld nets were used to scoop turtles out and assess them (as well as record crucial data, tag them and take samples).

Sea turtle eggsUSFWS (U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericTurtles requiring treatment and rehabilitation were sent to Gulf World and Sea World before being released back into the Gulf.

But what they did next probably saved the lives of 13,000 sea turtles.

FWC staff decided to move entire clutches of eggs from the Gulf area. They removed eggs that were far along enough in the incubation stage for gender to be determined and for their birthplace to be imprinted.

Turtles always try to return to the beach of their birth. Scientists determined they do this via a simple navigation system involving the earth's magnetic field.

Protecting Sea Turtles from the BP Oil Spill

By the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

When I read the April 2014 edition of the Marine Turtle Newsletter, a 27-page document with detailed study results of sea turtles from many areas of the world, the following data made my jaw drop:

  • In Brazil, 65 young sea turtles were found dead or dying along the coast
  • This included 3 species of turtles: 58 green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), 3 loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) and 4 hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) 
  • All of the turtles were classified as juveniles and subadults
  • When scientists necropsied all 65 sea turtles, they found 78.5%
    of them had anthropogenic waste in their digestive tract

Anthropogenic waste (environmental pollution and pollutants from human activity) includes: various types of plastic (bags, candy wrappers, plastic cups and pieces of hard plastic), nylon fishing line and thread, cigarette packages, balloons, pieces of wire and fabric, kite remnants, and Styrofoam.

Plastic was by far the worst offender, the frequency of each type of residue found in the sea turtles' digestive tract were as follows:

  • Beach strewn with plastic debrisUSFWS Headquarters on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericPlastic 62.3%
  • Nylon/Fishing line 16.9%
  • Balloon 7.5%
  • Cigarette package 3.8%
  • Fabric 3.8%
  • Wire 1.9%
  • Styrofoam 1.9%
  • Kite pieces 1.9%

So while it is crucial that turtles recover from oil spill disasters, the ever present problem in every ocean is the massive amounts of plastic and other man-made pollutants. As mentioned in my article about recycled ocean plastic, The Plastic Bank, founded by David Katz, is proving to be vital to sea turtle recovery on our planet.

How We Can All Help Sea Turtles

The Sea Turtle Conservancy provided numerous ways that we can all help sea turtles, some of which I wasn't even aware of. I outline them below:

  • If you live near a beach, turn off your lights or use blinds or thick curtains to block light. Apparently, lights cause both nesting and hatching turtles to wander off in the wrong direction.
  • Clean up the beach. Picking up garbage and debris will help many species of wild life and turtles that are nesting or hatching.
  • Knock down sand castles (yeah, really) since they can hinder turtle hatchlings from getting back to the ocean. Also fill in any holes in the beach and remove toys or other obstructions. 
  • Don't leave food debris behind that would attract raccoons, coyotes, foxes, or other vermin. Raccoons are one of the worst offenders, destroying thousands of sea turtle eggs every year. 
  • No fireworks on the beach. Nesting females are disturbed and disoriented by the bright lights and loud noises. 
  • If you see hatchlings on the beach do not pick them up, let them crawl to the ocean. Scientists believe this helps them imprint the beach (it's also against the law to pick up hatchlings). 
  • If you notice a marked nest, keep beach furniture at least 5 feet away from the area. Beach furniture shouldn't be left on the beach overnight as it could hinder or entrap sea turtles. 
  • Recycle plastic and buy environmentally safe substitutes whenever possible. Each year, over 100 million marine animals die because of plastic debris. 
  • Be aware of nesting season in your area of the world. In the US, 90% of all sea turtle nesting occurs on Florida's coast from May through October.

Baby Sea Turtles Hatching - Nicaragua

Uploaded by Ross Mannino

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