Florida sea turtles and the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
This year’s sea turtle nesting season will begin on May 1, with Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation staff and volunteers gearing up to cover island beaches.
Last year, many of us spent our spring and summer watching in horror as the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded and the well it serviced pumped barrels upon barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
From April 20 until the well was capped in July, sea turtles were center stage as a poster animal for the disaster. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was responsible for handling the impacts on sea turtles along the Florida shoreline.
Efforts to protect sea turtles began almost immediately. These efforts included on-the-water search and rescue, documentation and collection of sea turtles stranded on or near to shore, nesting beach protection and observation during cleanup activities.
Approximately 450 sea turtles were rescued at sea, all but five alive. Less than one percent of these turtles died during rehabilitation. Releases of rehabilitated turtles into oil-free waters began as soon as the well was capped. To date, all have been released, with the exception of 40 sea turtles that are still receiving care.
On the beaches of the panhandle, Florida’s only oiled beaches, emerging hatchlings faced almost certain death. The decision was made to relocate nests at 47-49 days of incubation (about one week before they would hatch) and release the hatchlings on the eastern coast of the state.
Eggs from 274 nests were carefully dug up and removed from the nest. They were placed in coolers with damp sand from the nest and transported near Cape Canaveral. The FedEx trucks used to move the eggs were temperature controlled, air-cushioned and equipped with special pallets to hold the coolers in place.
Every effort was made to reduce or eliminate unnecessarily jarring. At this stage in development, eggs are very vulnerable to movement, which can result in the death of the hatchling.
The coolers were kept in a temperature controlled facility and monitored until the nests hatched. Hatchlings were then released at night on nearby beaches.
In all, this massive undertaking unearthed and relocated 28,568 eggs and released 14,796 hatchlings. The hatch success (percentage of eggs that hatch out of the total number of eggs) for relocated nests matched that of nests left to hatch without assistance.
(Bryant recently attended the Florida Marine Turtle Permit Holders Annual Meeting, where these figures were released.)