More heartbreak: BP spill crushed comeback of rare turtle


Even now, some four-and-a-half years after the BP spill, hardly a day goes by when a new piece of information — often a significant new scientific study — doesn’t cross my desk to remind me of the horrors that BP unleashed upon the Gulf through its wanton negligence back in 2010. It’s heartbreaking, because typically these studies serve mainly to show that the initial dire predictions that were made at the time that BP’s 5 million barrels of crude oil were spewing into the Gulf have in fact come to pass. Sometimes, the environmental impacts from exposure to the spill — the clean-up workers sickened after breathing in fumes, or the ongoing plague of dead or stranded dolphins, or red snappers covered in lesions — are even more alarming than what the scientific experts had predicted initially.

Today, the Houston Chronicle reported the findings of a major study about the Kemp’s ridley turtle, an endangered species that once flourished in the waters not far from where the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010. Thanks to the hard work of conservationists, the species had been making a comeback — before BP entered the neighborhood:

BROWNSVILLE – For two decades, Texas’ official sea turtle made what scientists considered a remarkable comeback from the verge of extinction, as Kemp’s ridley nests increased amid broad efforts to save the species. 

Then in 2010, a fiery explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform dumped an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico just as the turtle’s nesting season was getting underway. Oil fouled the area near Louisiana where female turtles normally forage after nesting at the main grounds in Mexico or along the Texas Gulf Coast. Scientists found scores of dead Kemp’s ridley juveniles in oil scum in the deep sea among clumps of seaweed.

Now, scientists gathering in Brownsville have produced the first evidence that appears to link the oil spill to the decline of the world’s most endangered sea turtle.

A study presented at the Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium found oil in the carapace, or shell, of 29 sea turtles that returned to feed in the spill area in 2011 and 2012.

Scientists told the newspaper that it’s difficult to conclusively link this oil to the BP spill, but the fact that the problems arose after the spring of 2010 is devastating circumstantial evidence. “It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010, and we don’t know why,” Selina Heppell, a professor at Oregon State University who worked on the study, told the Chronicle. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”

The article is a lengthy read — taking in the long and tortured history of the efforts to save the turtles, an effort that began in the 1970s and which had once been a remarkable success — but it’s worth your time. It should be read by all the policymakers who are currently involved in a campaign to dramatically expand offshore oil drilling to the Atlantic Oceans and other waters that have long been off limits, as well as new areas of the Gulf. It’s also knowledge that should be shared with the new Republican lawmakers vowing to roll back environmental protections — not that it would likely change anyone’s mind. But with oil prices now lower than they’ve been in years, and with great advances in renewable energy, the need to risk another Deepwater Horizon-type disaster just isn’t there. Someone needs to speak up for the turtles.

Read more from the Houston Chronicle about the sudden decline of the Kemp’s ridley turtle here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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