Scientists are reporting a dramatic increase in dead and debilitated sea turtles found since the Gulf oil spill in April 2010. EarthSky spoke with Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. She’s leading the official rescue response for sea turtles across the Gulf of Mexico.
Barbara Schroeder: We’re seeing some of the direct effects now. We’re recovering dead and debilitated turtles that are oiled.
Since the spill began in April until mid-June, response teams have found about 380 dead sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s about five times as many as last year for the same period according to NOAA. Scientists aren’t yet sure exactly why the turtles are dying.
Barbara Schroeder: What we do know is there are significant numbers of turtles that are affected by the oil, and that will continue as long as the spill continues and the oil is out there.
Schroeder said it’s too early to tell what the effects of the spill will be on surviving turtle populations.
Barbara Schroeder: There may be effects that are not sufficient to kill an animal, but interfere with its reproductive capacity. Maybe it’s a female, and in the future, maybe she doesn’t lay as many eggs.
Schroeder said that when oiled turtles are found alive, members of response teams not only wash off the oil, but help the oil move through the turtles’ systems before the turtles are ready to go back to sea. She said right now, they are collecting information from the turtles they find, for study after the immediate response is over.
Barbara Schroeder: We’re monitoring and collecting all turtles that wash ashore or are found near shore. We’ll be doing assessments of those to determine, if possible, probable cause of death. We’re examining those turtles for signs of external oil and internal oil. For those that are in good enough condition, we’re collecting tissue samples that we will test for toxins.
The response team is also trying to rescue the sea turtles that may be near the site of the spill.
Barbara Schroeder: We have another effort focused well offshore, where we are looking for turtles at the surface, the life stages near the surface in convergence areas, these are places where a lot of the oil is going. We’re trying to get a sense of the numbers of turtles out there. Some are dead, some are alive, and of course we are recovering all of them. The lives ones are going to rehabilitation centers.
But Schroeder said it’s hard to tell if animals affected by the spill will survive, in the long term.
Barbara Schroeder: There isn’t an answer to how many will live and how many will live after release. We don’t know. But we have encouraging signs that some of the animals for now are doing well. They are starting to move some of the oil through their system. We have cleaned as much as we can reach. Now we are working towards caring for them in the best way that we can. There are really no other options.
Our thanks to:
NOAA Communications & External Affairs
National Marine Fisheries Service
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.