Planet Earth

Beyond Politics: Oil, Water, Shrimp, and Sea Turtles

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMay 5, 2010 4:52 PM


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This is a guest post from Wallace J. Nichols, a marine scientist and oceans conservationist who in 1998 founded the Grupo Tortuguero, an international grassroots movement dedicated to restoring Pacific sea turtles and to sustainable management of ocean fisheries. He currently works with several universities and organizations to protect the oceans, including Ocean Revolution and the California Academy of Sciences.

My brave friend Leilani Munter called from the field to report that the National Wildlife Federation and CNN had documented the first sea turtle caught in a slick at sea, gasping for air through an iridescent sheen. Tragically, just as nesting season for a number of the Gulf of Mexico’s sea turtle species is set to begin, these highly endangered animals become the poster species of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Soon, if not already, adult male and female turtles will gather in shallow coastal waters, mate and prepare to nest, precisely where oil is accumulating. The pregnant females will scuttle across beaches at night to lay eggs, just as they've done for millions of years, but these beaches will be different—they will be blacked with oil. In a few short weeks, a new generation of hatchlings will emerge from the sand and make their way across oily beaches to an oily sea where tar balls and slicks will make their already-long odds of survival even longer. As they mature, they will have to rise through oil slicks to breathe and survive by eating oil-coated animals, algae and seagrass. While sea turtle will be among the most recognizable victims, they won’t be alone. Many species of birds, fish, invertebrates and plants will fare just as badly. Even before the spill, sea turtles had it tough. US and Mexican trawlers drag nets across the sea floor in search of shrimp, but catch thousands of turtles by “accident.” Bright beach lighting deters pregnant female turtles as they come ashore to nest, or distracts hatchlings as they poke their heads from the sand looking for the sheltering sea. If they survive this gauntlet, plastic pollution might choke them or fills their guts with worthless, indigestible junk. Long-line hooks snag them by the thousands each year. With the BP spill, many of the sea turtles’ remaining few ocean and coastal habitats will now be slathered in sticky, slippery, untamable oil. Ironically, these are the very same habitats where industries traditionally at odds with the sea turtles—tourism, oystermen, and shrimpers—make their livelihoods. Such an uncomfortably close tie between oil, seafood and wildlife is an everyday irony of the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, in early September, the people of Morgan City, Louisiana, will celebrate the 75th Annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival. (I am not making this up.) In the organizers' own words, the event "will prove that oil and water really do mix.” But oil, water, shrimp and sea turtles don’t mix; they make a sticky, deadly stew. What will happen next with the BP spill? No one knows for sure, but even the most optimistic scenarios provide little hope. Oceanographers who know the currents of the Gulf fear that the slick will wend around the tip of Florida. Meeting the Gulf Stream there, the oil make its way up the Atlantic seaboard, wrecking havoc along hundreds, perhaps thousands of additional miles of coast. All of the volunteers and sponges in the world won’t be enough to sop up this mess. Like us, these endangered, ancient sea turtles are caught up in a disaster of someone else’s making. The timing is brutal for all. Things will likely get much worse, but there is some hope. The "turtle huggers,” like me, are legion … and dedicated. We care about our neighbors, passionately. It could take a while, but the work must get done. If you can’t be on the front line, please support those who are. For our part, Fabien Cousteau and I are in El Salvador launching the Billion Baby Turtles Project in close partnership with our colleagues at FUNZEL, the premier wildlife conservation group protecting sea turtles in El Salvador. Over the next decade, we will release a billion baby turtles around the world, to help rebuild populations decimated by unchecked human activities, like egg collecting, bottom-trawling, and, of course, oil spills. In the coming years, we'll learn a lot about the impact of massive oil spills on sensitive species and ecosystems, as we do every time a spill like this happens. Study upon scientific study will be forthcoming. Hopefully, they and this crisis will lead us to the clean energy future. Meanwhile, wherever you are, I urge you to get beyond politics and fight for a clean, healthy, oil-free ocean for turtles, for fishermen, and for yourself. And, of course, to fly your sea turtle flag high.

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