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Sea Turtle Deaths Mount in the Gulf

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Sea turtles continue to wash ashore along the Gulf, forcing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to scramble and figure out what is causing the spike. Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Huffington Post were first to publish blogs about the sea turtle deaths in Mississippi. 

Since then, the national media picked up the story. Last Friday, NMFS released a statement with some details about its investigation:

In the past few weeks, we've seen an increase in turtle strandings in the northern Gulf, primarily in Mississippi. The spring time is the typical time when turtle strandings in this region begin to increase, but the sharp increases in recent days are of concern to us….NOAA Fisheries is in contact with the states of MS and LA regarding current trawl and other fishery activity that can result in turtle by catch and mortality.  In addition, tests will be done for biotoxins, such as those from harmful algae blooms, which are common in the Gulf. …All causes of death, including petroleum, will be investigated when possible based on decomposition.  During a necropsy, the full GI tract is examined for product or evidence of oil ingestion.  Additionally, samples are taken for PAH analysis. In addition, all turtles are being carefully examined for signs of external oiling.

Like the dolphin strandings this year, it’s likely that many more turtles have died and will never be found. A recent study of dolphin deaths showed the true number of mortalities is probably 50 times what is recovered. As of Friday, NOAA says recent deaths of sea turtles, all of which are included on the Endangered Species list, include 6 in Alabama, 10 in Louisiana, and 47 in Mississippi. 

Dead sea turtles found recently in Waveland, MS         Photos by Shirley Tillman

Make that at least 50 confirmed sea turtle deaths in Mississippi. This weekend, Pass Christian resident Shirley Tillman found three more dead turtles. Altogether, she has found nine this year. Over her more than 30 years in the community, she has never seen a dead turtle before.

On Saturday, she took another walk on the beach, this time with a PBS television producer. Within an hour they found one turtle badly decomposed and hidden in marsh grass near Waveland. Shirley says she only discovered it because of the smell. On Sunday she went back to check on the turtle, which had been spray-painted orange for pick-up by authorities. That's when she was told there was yet another dead turtle on the beach nearby.

“It’s crazy that I go out there nearly every day and find them. It makes me mad that NOAA is now trying to blame the shrimp fishermen for killing them in their nets when the shrimp season isn’t even open yet and hardly any boats are out there.”

Shrimp fishermen feel the same way. They are required to use turtle excluders, devices that allow turtles to escape drowning in shrimp nets. Every year some turtles are killed by fishing boats inadvertently, but shrimpers say to blame them for the recent jump in turtle deaths is hard to believe.   

“It’s about as ridiculous as anything else I heard during this whole oil spill,” said Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry. “This time of year shrimp fishermen are fixing their boats and getting ready for the main season that begins in May. I guess they’ve run out of excuses after saying everything is being killed by dead zones and algae, so now they need to blame us.”

Sea turtle found near Long Beach, MS        Photo by Laurel Lockamy

Dead sea turtle found near Waveland, MS                   Photo by Shirley Tillman

Nearly two weeks ago a new oil spill from a shallow well off the Louisiana coast leaked oil into the water that resulted in a huge slick that stretched for miles and polluted parts of Grand Isle and other nearby marshes. The Coast Guard says it was due to oil leaking from a well being capped by Anglo-Suisse, an oil drilling firm based in Texas. Initially the company said it had leaked only 5 gallons of oil. 

But the oil slick was clearly much bigger. According to a Skytruth, an analysis of the slick using satellite imagery shows the well may have gushed as much as 640,000 gallons of Louisiana crude into the sea. It’s not clear what impact this oil spill has had on marine life.

In Mississippi, Shirley Tillman believes BP oil has something to do with the dead sea life she constantly encounters by the shore. And she wonders how this may affect vacationers now  flocking to the region. “It’s bad enough for turtles and dolphins to be dying, but should people and their children be swimming in this water too?”

That is not the kind of message BP or local politicians want to hear. Major PR campaigns are underway to convince people the Gulf is normal and the seafood is safe. That’s the message they want to people to hear.

But that message is at odds with the views of Gulf residents like Shirley Tillman. She sees a different reality every day she walks the beach.

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