As oil bubbled to the ocean’s surface last year, it swept across the Gulf of Mexico into areas crucial to sea turtles that forage and nest in the basin. Now researchers are starting to assess the oil’s affect on the species.
Shortly after the spill started, a team of experts began looking for oiled turtles, finding roughly 1,000 in nearly six months. The group rescued about half, almost all of them “oceanic juveniles out in deep blue water—or water that would otherwise be blue—and far away from land,” says Blair Witherington, a research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who was part of the operation. The oil coated both marine reptiles and the floating seaweed, known as sargasso, that young turtles depend on.
Nearly 50 percent of the juveniles, about the size of a coconut with the husk, were endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Known to be the rarest sea turtle on the planet, they spend most of their lives in the Gulf. “Kemp’s ridley was affected greatly in terms of oiling—and they’re already endangered—so every individual lost from an endangered species could be said to bring it closer to extinction. But that’s something that will be debated and examined very closely as assessments are done from the effects of the spill,” says Witherington.
The team also found affected green, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles.
Beginning in May, Witherington and a group of researchers will attempt to find out if there are long-term effects to these species by catching and swabbing them. Then they will analyze the samples, checking for the signature of the oil that gushed from the Macondo well.
Another study conducted by Andre Landry, the director of sea turtle and fisheries in the department of marine biology at Texas A&M University, seeks to find if the oil is having an impact on individuals that nest on the Gulf’s shores. Done in conjunction with biologists in Texas and Florida, the researchers will collect blood and tissue samples and test for contaminants in eggshells gathered after hatchlings emerge. If they find oil, they’ll also determine if it came from the spill. “I think we have to be ready to accept the fact that the impact is going to best be determined over the long-haul,” says Landry. “It’s still way, way up the air in terms of impacts to populations and I think it’s too early to tell, to tell you the truth.”
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