Scientists see spike in oil-soaked Gulf turtles

HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. wildlife officials have recovered over 1,000 oil-soaked turtles from the Gulf of Mexico in recent weeks, but the threat from BP Plc’s oil spill has waned since the ruptured well has been capped, experts said.

On April 20, a Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. U.S. wildlife officials have been tracking the number of oiled turtles recovered since the spill. The number of turtles began to spike in late July.

From July 27 through August 8, the number of oil-covered sea turtles more than doubled to about 440, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported.

Calm seas made search and capture of the oiled turtles easier, so the numbers increased, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

Of the 1,000 sea turtles recovered since the spill began, 487 were alive and 516 dead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. About 570 sea turtles have been found stranded on Gulf Coast beaches, six times the number reported in previous years, said David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation.

The recently recovered turtles have had much less oil on them, ranging from a light sheen to moderate coating, but no heavy oiling, said Barbara Schroeder, a NOAA turtle expert.

“Most of the turtles that we have captured in the last few weeks don’t require any rehabilitation,” Schroeder said.

The Gulf is far from clean and the spill still poses a danger to sea turtles, but Schroeder said there have been encouraging signs in the floating seaweed patches, known as sargassum, where young turtles in the gulf live and feed.

“Now we are starting to see much more healthy sargassum habitat,” she said. “The sargassum is coming back to life.”


But turtle habitats have not recovered enough to allow hatchling turtles to venture into the water from Northern Gulf shores, Schroeder said.

About 208 nests have been relocated from the Northern Gulf to the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral in Florida, and over 4,000 hatchlings have been released off of east Central Florida beaches, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is unclear whether the relocated turtles will try to nest in Florida or return to their birthplace in the Gulf, said Alan Bolten of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida.

Most of the relocated hatchlings are loggerhead turtles, which return to a general region rather than a specific beach to nest. It takes 35 years before they are ready to nest for the first time, Bolten said, and consequently they are able to adapt to changes that can occur in that time.

Florida is home to 90 percent of all turtle nests in the continental United States, according to Sea Turtle Conservancy. There were over 50,000 loggerhead turtle nests in Florida last year, with each nest containing up to 120 eggs. Only about 1 in 1,000 sea turtles survive to adulthood.