Oil Spill Takes a Devastating Toll on the Gulf’s Sea Turtle Population


The sea turtles killed by BP’s oil spill are an iconic symbol of the disaster, and now we’re learning just how damaging the situation has become. It turns out that the months following the oil spill were the deadliest in decades for the turtles, and some species are already endangered.

Some 600 turtles were found dead, according to an analysis by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation and the Florida Wildlife Federation. The groups only tallied turtles found on shore, and there’s no doubt that many more died at sea.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Matt Sedensky draws a distinction between those turtles directly killed by the spill and those “…drowned in fishing nets in the scramble to catch shrimp and fish before the oil ruined them.” That’s a bit like saying the BP spill isn’t responsible for destroying all those oysters that died when desperate officials flooded fresh water into the Gulf to push back the oil.

Mr. Sedensky says that groups undertook “…herculean efforts to try to save turtles during the oil spill. All told, hundreds of loggerhead nests containing nearly 15,000 hatchlings were successfully transported and later released along the Atlantic.”

Although independent rescue groups  worked desperately to do all they could, BP and NOAA have been blasted for a slow and ineffective response to saving turtles during the height of the cleanup. Veteran charter boat fishing Captain Al Walker of the Gulf Wildlife Rescue Unit has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NOAA-BP effort:

“I find it sickening and disturbing that NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco continues to pat herself on the back for the government’s turtle rescue effort during the spill. NOAA, along with BP, were in charge of rescuing five federally managed species of turtles, one of which is endangered. It is a fact that NOAA and BP had very capable, willing and able resources available to them but failed to deploy them. Numerous local captains, who teamed up with highly qualified turtle doctors, represented the most capable group of men and women on the face of the planet to assist in finding and saving these cherished creatures. But NOAA and BP kept these people out of the process, and it smells fishy to me.”

According to Walker, there were only FIVE boats deployed for the duration of the spill response to save what NOAA estimated to be thousands of sea turtles. He describes NOAA’s efforts as “completely inadequate.” The fact that BP will be fined $50,000 for each dead turtle makes many of us wonder if the government-BP response was setup to fail. “They didn’t want us out there rescuing turtles and finding dead ones,” says Capt. Walker. He is fighting for a congressional hearing on the matter.

Ms. Lubchenco’s series of missteps and failures in handling the spill response has eroded public trust in the government’s ability to oversee recovery and restoration efforts. Like President Obama’s energy adviser Carol Browner, who is resigning after repeatedly downplaying the spill’s impact, it’s time for Ms. Lubchenco to go.

Here are some of Ms. Lubchenco’s more notable gaffes that we previously reported on:

  1. What Oil Plume?: In mid-May 2010, Lubchenco questioned the existence of a massive sub-sea oil plume, describing media reports covering the plume as “misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate.” (see http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2010/05/18/NOAA-downplays-subsea-oil-plume-claims/UPI-30271274193842/) She also tried to stop researchers from going public with the plume discovery, spurring allegations of a government coverup. As reported by the St. Petersburg Times (Aug. 10, 2010): “Lubchenco confirmed Monday that her agency told USF and other academic institutions involved in the study of undersea plumes that they should hold off talking so openly about it.” (see http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/usf-says-government-tried-to-squelch-their-oil-plume-findings/1114225) It is now common knowledge that the enormous plume did, in fact, exist.
  2. “Vast Majority of Oil Is Gone”: In early August 2010, Lubchenco and energy adviser Carol Browner announced that the vast majority of BP’s oil had simply disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico. Those claims, of course, have since been completely discredited by a host of sources.
  3. Misrepresented Drilling Safety Report: In November 2010, Lubchenco and energy adviser Carol Browner were involved in misrepresenting a drilling safety report “in a way that made it falsely appear that scientists and experts supported the administration’s six-month ban on new deep-water drilling,” as reported by the Associated Press. Ms. Lubchenco “contributed to the public’s perception” that the drilling safety report “was more exact than it was by emphasizing peer review.” (see http://oilspillaction.com/govts-handling-of-science-on-oil-spill-questioned)

Sea turtles will remain one of the more important ecological issues, of course, and it’s worth remembering that about 90 percent of North American sea turtle nesting happens on Florida’s beaches. HuffPo also says that “…five of the planet’s seven species of sea turtles are found in the state. Four of those – green, hawksbill, leatherback and Kemp’s ridley – are considered endangered, or at risk of becoming extinct. The fourth, loggerheads, is listed as threatened, or likely to become endangered.”

The turtle situation will no doubt become a huge part of the funding debate for both restoring coastal areas and limiting development – both hot-button issues in Florida and around the Gulf. Stay tuned, as we continue to follow this important story very closely. And there’s no doubt that we will be hearing more from Capt. Al Walker.

Read the HuffPo post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/28/gulf-oil-spill-turtles-di_n_814732.html

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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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