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The seemingly endless oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is killing countless sea animals and sea birds, large and small. But there is no story as tragic as the plight of the sea turtles.
These magnificent, graceful, creatures are particularly vulnerable to the effects of oil in the water, which weakens their eggs, chokes and poisons their young, and leaves adults addled and starving.
In the case of the most endangered species, the Kemp's ridley turtle, hatchlings leaving their nests in Mexico this season are swimming right into the heart of the spill area, where their instinct to seek shelter and prey among floating vegetation is betraying them by leading them straight to thick clots of oil and oil-soaked seaweed.
There, instead of finding security and food, they are getting poisoned, trapped and asphyxiated.
And if that weren't tragic enough, it turns out that shrimp boats hired by BP to corral floating oil with booms and set it on fire have been burning hundreds if not thousands of the young turtles alive.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE UNSEEN
Despite the heart-wrenching photos of oil-covered animals along the Gulf Coast shoreline, marine scientists say the greater carnage remains offshore and, as yet, largely unnoticed.
Due to the extraordinary depth of the blown-out well and the unprecedented application of 1.6 million gallons of dispersants, much if not most of the oil (and gas, as well) still lurks unseen in the water column -- out of sight, but potentially wiping out vast populations of plankton, fish, and even larger marine animals.
The images of dead and suffering sea turtles (see the slideshow, below) are a rare, visible example of that offshore and underwater devastation.
Their plight offers a glimpse of what is happening where we can't see.
ABOUT THE SEA TURTLES
Sea turtles are long-lived animals, often with lifespans of three decades or more, and as a species have been swimming the oceans for more than 100 million years.
All five of the sea turtle species that make their home in the Gulf are listed as either "endangered" or "threatened". Several approached the brink of extinction, primarily due to the destruction of their nesting areas and the use of indiscriminate fishing nets.
For three decades, scientist and environmentalists and volunteers have successfully fought to protect sea turtles --- and have dramatically reversed the declines in population. It's been one of the great environmental success stories of.our time.
But this oil spill is killing them in potentially catastrophic numbers.
Sarah L. Milton, a sea-turtle physiologist at Florida Atlantic University, and co-author of a 2003 NOAA report on oil toxicity and its impacts on sea turtles, told the Huffington Post it couldn't have happened at a worse time.
"The adults, both males and females, will be just offshore for breeding," she explained. "Oil on the beaches will affect females going ashore to nest. Studies have shown that oil on the eggs leads to reduced nest success and increased deformities. Hatchlings that emerge will have to cross the oiled beaches to get to the water, and then swim through what is out there.
"Proportionately, the oil is likely to have a much greater effect on the hatchlings, just due to their smaller size -- swallowing a tar ball will do far worse damage to a tiny gut than a large one."
Adults are far from immune, however. At all ages, for instance, turtles are indiscriminate eaters, and they inhale deeply before diving for food, two behaviors that increase their risk of fatal exposure. Many of them right now are foraging for food along the Northern Gulf coast, where the oil is currently concentrated.
A new report from the environmental group Oceana identifies some other risks:
*\Oil or dispersants on the sea turtle's skin and body can cause skin irritation, chemical burns,and infections. Oil exposure for just 4 days can cause sea turtles' skin to continually fall off in sheets. This condition persists even after they are removed and treated from the exposure.
* Inhalation of volatile petroleum compounds or dispersants can damage the respiratory tract and lead to diseases such as pneumonia.
* Ingesting oil or dispersants may cause injury to the gastrointestinal tract, which may affect the animals' ability to absorb or digest foods....
* Chemicals that are inhaled or ingested may damage liver, kidney, and brain function, cause anemia and immune suppression, or lead to reproductive failure or death.
Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., told Huffpost that more than 200 dead turtles have been recovered along the Mississippi coast since the spill.
Many of them, oddly enough, had fish-hooks in their mouths and guts. But that, Solangi said, is a clue to how dramatically their behavior has changed due to the oil spill.
"As the spill started to escalate, these animals started moving closer to the shoreline," he said. Out of their normal habitats, they lunged for anything that looked like food -- including fishing bait.
And now, with the oil having arrived on Mississippi's coasts, even the turtles that had avoided it so far are suffering from its direct effects.
Oil, Solangi said, disrupts sea turtles' chemoreceptors -- in other words, their senses.
"It affects their ability to find prey," Solangi said. "It affects their ability to identify where their habitat is, or to understand movement."
Solangi concluded: "They're confused and they're hungry."
As of the end of June, the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 583 sea turtles had been found in the spill area thus far. The great majority were either found dead or died soon after, leaving 136 to be taken to rehabilitation centers.
The biggest success story has been NOAA's turtle-rescue vessels, which have captured about 90 live turtles -- most of them Kemp ridleys. But the rescue effort is dwarfed by the scale of the disaster.
First of all, NOAA didn't even get its turtle rescue boats out onto the Gulf until late May, a month or so after the BP well first started spewing millions of gallons of oil a day into the pristine waters. And even now, there are only three such boats being deployed.
Blair Witherington, a sea turtle research scientist for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission -- who's been working on one of those boats -- told the Huffington Post that he recently charted all the areas where NOAA boats have been working, and "it's just a group of little squiggles off in one tiny area of the spill zone."
Witherington said dozens of vessels should be out every day. But, he said, "I'm coming to realize that there are so many logistical and bureaucratic roadblocks between the people who want to get things done and getting those things done."
Many of those roadblocks, he said, "are not understandable to me."
And then there is the matter of the burning.
In mid-June, public reports started to emerge that the "controlled burns" BP was using to remove oil from the surface of the Gulf were also incinerating untold numbers of young turtles.
NOAA scientists at the time were rescuing turtles -- dozens of them -- from precisely the same kinds of floating "oil lines" and "weed lines" that BP-hired shrimp boats were corralling with boom and then setting on fire.
In a June 13 YouTube video, Louisiana charter boat captain Mike Ellis told marine biologist Catherine Craig about how his boat, carrying NOAA turtle rescuers, was turned away from what's become known as the "burn box" -- the section of the Gulf designated for burning on a given day.
"They kept trying to ran us out of there and then they shut us down, they would not let us get back in there. In the meantime, how many turtles got caught up in there and just burned?" Ellis asked.
"They drag a boom between two boats, and whatever's caught up, they circle it together and catch it on fire. Once the turtles are in it, they can't get out. I mean they come up, it looks, they look like they're chocolate covered. "
"[B]ased on my years of experience in the Gulf of Mexico, it is almost certain that endangered turtles were present in the burn boxes that I observed on the same oil line where our rescue team saved ten endangered turtles, and that these turtles will continue to be present in similar burn boxes that continue to be used by BP as part of its practice of controlled burns," Ellis declared.
Bob Hoffman, the endangered species branch chief for NOAA's Southeast regional office, told the Huffington Post on Wednesday that the burns had been temporarily curtailed because of high seas, and that when they resume, NOAA will now make sure each "burn team" -- made up of two shrimp boats hauling booms and an "igniter" boat -- includes a trained observer who will be able to rescue turtles before they are incinerated.
The animal-welfare groups declared themselves satisfied on Friday, withdrawing their request for an immediate restraining order. "BP and the Coast Guard have further agreed to establish a standard operating protocol for the burns, and to convene a group of scientists to determine the necessary elements of the protocol to ensure the safety of the turtles," the groups announced Friday.
The first NOAA observer actually went out with a burn team last week, and reported seeing no turtles at all. But, Hoffman said: "I think that there were turtles in the area that were being burned. I'm not going to deny that.... When they pop up into the thick oil, it's like a fly on flypaper, they just can't get out of it."
Hoffman said there have been more than 200 controlled burns since the oil well blew up in late April. And no one knows how many turtles that could have been saved instead were cremated alive.
But based on the data the observers collect going forward, Hoffman said, an estimate of how many turtles were killed by fire "will be part of what we do when we do the biological opinion at the end of this project." That's the Natural Resource Damage Assessment that NOAA is compiling, and that will be used to make sure that the responsible party -- in this case, BP -- pays what is required to compensate the public for its losses.
Most Kemp ridley turtles nest in Mexico, but many of the other Gulf of Mexico turtles nest along the U.S. coastline. And rather than watch a whole generation of hatchlings hurtle into the muck and die, a consortium of federal and state wildlife groups on June 26 announced a plan to collect about 70,000 mostly loggerhead turtle eggs in up to 800 nests buried in the sand across Florida Panhandle and Alabama beaches -- and release the hatchlings along Florida's central Atlantic coast.
It's a radical move, and one for which many marine scientists have only modest hopes.
"In developing this plan we realized early on that our expectations for success needed to be realistic," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national sea turtle coordinator Sandy MacPherson said in a statement. "On the one hand the activities identified in the protocols are extraordinary and would never be supportable under normal conditions. However, taking no action would likely result in the loss of all of this year's Northern Gulf of Mexico hatchlings."
Milton, the turtle physiologist from FAU, said similar, smaller scale moves have resulted in "reduced hatching success." But, she told HuffPost: "reduced hatch success is better than sending hatchlings into the Gulf."
Institute director Solangi is similarly sober about his expectations. "This is the only thing that is left to do," he said. Putting animals in new habitats is a risky proposition. But, he said, "the option is between death -- or give them a chance."
Carole Allen is Gulf office director for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. She's been working to save turtles since 1982.
"They've been around since the dinosaurs, and I feel we have a moral responsibility not to kill things that were on the earth long before we were," she said. "They're a wonderful animal, and they have survived so many threats."
The effects of the spill are "worse probably than anybody dreamed, particularly for the Kemp's ridleys," she said. "It is a tremendous setback. It's just really unbelievable. I can't believe that just a few months ago, the news was so encouraging, and the government was predicting that the Kemp's ridleys could be downlisted from endangered to threatened in five years."
The immediate dangers are horrible enough, she said. "But what is the long-term effect on the Gulf of Mexico if all this oil goes to the bottom?.. The food supply of these turtles is right where the oil is sinking into the estuaries and the marshes," she said.
"When they plug that well, it's going to help. But it's certainly not going to go away. And we may not know for years just how profound the effect is."
Milton, the FAU turtle expert, shared Allen's concerns. "There are two long term effects that worry me because they are unknown, which are oil in the foodchain and the potential effects of the dispersants, which is likely to effect the first problem," she told HuffPost.
"The potential for toxic buildup of oil byproducts in the foodchain is likely to be quite large, and we don't know enough about turtle physiology to know what the long term effects of bioaccumulation will be. And we know nothing about the dispersants at all, except that by busting the oil up into smaller bits and making it sink, it' s all the more likely to enter the foodchain at the level of invertebrate prey."
One thing that's clear to marine scientists is that the turtle casualties we've seen so far only represent a small fraction of the toll these noble creatures are suffering -- both now and for years to come.
Solangi, for instance, notes that the hundreds of dead turtles in Mississippi were all retrieved from beaches -- and most of the state's shoreline consists of inaccessible marshes, estuaries, and barrier islands. For each turtle retrieved, he said, there are several times as many that remain undiscovered.
The Oceana reports notes that many dead and injured turtles will never be found by search crews, "because currents often carry the carcasses out to sea or carcasses can sink or be eaten by predators."
And yet none of the scientists or turtle rescuers interviewed by the Huffington Post has given up hope.
"I've got to be optimistic about it," said Allen, the 28-year veteran of turtle advocacy. "The Gulf is big and I'm hoping that there are some places where the turtles are where they can stay out of trouble."
"I would say turtles probably have been hit the worst of the endangered species," said NOAA's Hoffman. "But I don't think it's going to nullify the whole recovery. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, anyway."
"I'm a scientist. I try to remain objective," said Witherington, the Florida Fish and Wildlife turtle expert. "Sometimes I start to dwell on the tragedy, and then I realize I'm just getting depressed," he said. "And I understand the job at hand, and that is to rescue these turtles."
For years, Witherington has been studying the juvenile phase of the sea-turtles' lives, watching them as they travel the open ocean, congregating around floating seaweed and other debris -- the very behavior that's now killing them.
"They live in a beautiful place," Witherington said. "The animals are interesting; the place where they live is interesting. It's beautiful. And now all that has changed."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.