Tragically, endangered sea turtles have emerged as the flag species of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Nesting season for Kemp's ridleys, green turtles and loggerheads on Gulf beaches is beginning. That means adult male and female turtles will aggregate in shallow coastal waters, mating and preparing to nest, right where oil is accumulating. They'll climb across oiled beaches at night to lay their eggs, as they've done for millions of years. Young turtles feeding around the Gulf are also vulnerable as they surface through oil slicks to breathe and eat oil-coated animals, algae and seagrass. Weeks from now, baby turtles will emerge from the sand and make their way back to the oily sea where tar balls and slicks will make the odds even longer for their survival.
Prior to the oil spill, sea turtles had it tough already. US and Mexican shrimp trawlers drag nets on the sea floor and catch thousands of sea turtles each year. Beach lighting can deter and distract turtles as the nest or babies as they return to the sea. Plastic pollution chokes turtles and fills their guts with worthless bulk. Long line hooks snag turtles in the mouth and throat.
Now their ocean and coastal habitats are coated with millions of gallons of sticky, slippery, untamable oil. Those are the same habitats the tourism industry, the oystermen and shrimp fishermen depend on for their livelihoods. Along with thousands of species of birds, fish, invertebrates and plants. The Deepwater Horizon explosion, subsequent sinking and continuing leaking is 9-11 for ocean life, rig workers and coastal people, playing out in slow motion since the event that killed eleven people on the platform.
The intimate connection between oil and shrimp is epitomized by the 75th Annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, to be held Sept. 2 - 6, 2010, in picturesque downtown Morgan City, Louisiana. According to organizers, it is an event that "will prove that oil and water really do mix". This year the event will be a sad reminder that they don't.
But oil, water, shrimp and sea turtles can make for a slippery, deadly stew. My courageous friend Leilani Munter called from the field to report that the National Wildlife Federation wildlife rescue team along with CNN has documented the first turtle in the oil at sea, a loggerhead gasping through the slick for air. Other turtles have washed up on beaches, dead, decomposed and coated in oil. However, many are thought to have been killed pre-spill by nets, an annual occurrence along this stretch of coast.
Oceanographers fear that as the oil gushes to the surface it will spread with the currents around the Gulf and up the Atlantic seaboard, wrecking havoc along hundreds, perhaps thousands of mile of coast.
All of the volunteers with booms and sponges in the world aren't enough to stop or sop up this mess. And the most optimistic scenarios provide little hope at all.
Endangered, ancient sea turtles are completely caught up in this mess with us. The timing is brutal for people and sea turtles. It appears that things will get much worse.
But we "turtle huggers", are legion and dedicated to the core. I've learned that people who love sea turtles also care about their neighbors, passionately. If you're not on the front line, or on your way to volunteer, support those who are. Aquariums all along the east coast will be at capacity helping rehabilitate animals. This could take a while.
For our part, Fabien Cousteau and I are in El Salvador launching the Billion Baby Turtles Project in partnership with our Salvadorean colleagues at FUNZEL, the premier wildlife rescue and conservation group protecting sea turtles in this country. Over the next decade we will release one billion baby turtles around the world, to help rebuild populations decimated by unchecked human activities, like egg collecting, bottom-trawling and oil spills. But make no mistake, that strategy won't work without a reduction in bycatch in fishing gear and a healthy ocean for those turtles to thrive in.
Studies upon studies will be forthcoming on this latest chapter of our misaligned relationship with the ocean. We'll learn a lot about the impact of massive oil spills on sensitive species and ecosystems, as we always do. And hopefully those studies will provide leverage to get us to the clean energy future we so desperately need.
Meanwhile, wherever you are, put politics aside and fight for clean, healthy, oil-free oceans for turtles, for fishermen and for yourself in every way you can.
And fly your sea turtle flag high.