Oil spill devastating for sea turtles, Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem
Oceana, the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, released a new report on Friday entitled "Why Healthy Oceans Need Sea Turtles: The Importance of Sea Turtles to Marine Ecosystems."
The new report describes the vital roles sea turtles play, including maintaining healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, providing key habitat for other marine life, helping to balance marine food webs and facilitating nutrient cycling from water to land.
As of July 21, 709 sea turtles have been found dead or injured since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began April 20, 2010. While the cause of injury or death for the majority of these sea turtles has yet to be determined, the number of dead and injured sea turtles is significantly higher than normal and 184 of the sea turtles had visible signs of oil.
The actual number of sea turtles affected may be higher still, since some dead and injured sea turtles are not found by search crews and do not wash up on the beaches. In fact, ocean currents often carry these animals out to sea where they can sink or be eaten by predators.
“Sea turtles are ambassadors to our oceans,” said Elizabeth Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at Oceana. “It is tragic that these magnificent animals are being killed by the oil spill. Each sea turtle lost as a result of the oil spill will further disrupt this marine ecosystem.”
As sea turtles in the Gulf continue to be impacted by the oil spill, so does their ability to fulfill vital functions in the marine ecosystem. Sea turtles’ ability to do the following will likely be affected by the spill:
• Maintain healthy seagrass beds by increasing the productivity and nutrient content of seagrass blades when grazing.
• Maintain healthy coral reefs by removing sponges when foraging.
• Facilitate nutrient cycling by supplying a concentrated source of high-protein nutrients when nesting.
• Balance marine food webs by maintaining jellyfish populations.
• Provide a food source for fish by carrying around barnacles, algae and other similar organisms.
• Increase the rate of nutrient recycling on the ocean floor by breaking up shells while foraging.
• Provide habitat for small marine organisms as well as offer an oasis for fish and seabirds in the open ocean.
The oil spill is extremely dangerous for sea turtles inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, sea turtles can become coated in oil or inhale volatile chemicals when they surface to breathe, swallow oil or contaminated prey, and swim through oil or come in contact with it on nesting beaches. The oil spill could also destroy important sea turtle habitat areas such as seagrass beds and coral reefs, as well as reduce food availability.
Five of the world’s seven sea turtle species inhabit the Gulf of Mexico for some portion of their lives. These species (green, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and loggerhead) are all listed as either “threatened” or “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, meaning that they are in danger of extinction.
“For the moment, the gushing oil has stopped but this oil spill will have long-lasting impacts on sea turtles and the Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystem” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Sea turtles are already struggling and are affected by oil at so many stages of their lives, from hatching to egg laying and everything in between. Sea turtles are a textbook example of the fact that the risks of offshore drilling greatly outweigh the benefits.”
Oceana is urging the Obama administration to ban new offshore drilling immediately and permanently. Oceana is also urging the government to determine the cumulative impact of human activities on sea turtles and reduce the number of sea turtles harmed to a level that will allow recovery of sea turtle populations.