Debby Crouse on evacuating sea turtle eggs from Gulf region

An estimated 70,000 sea turtle eggs are being evacuated from oil-threatened beaches bordering the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast of Florida, beginning in July 2010. The evacuation plan is an attempt to save the next generation of Gulf sea turtles. Scientists say the plan’s chances of success are unknown.

Debby Crouse: Moving sea turtle eggs may cause all sorts of other problems, but we believe that under these circumstances, we have little choice.

EarthSky spoke with sea turtle biologist Debby Crouse of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the organizations evacuating turtle eggs, loggerheads, leatherbacks, and Kemp’s ridley. Their nests – containing up to 100 eggs – are being carefully packed with sand into Styrofoam boxes and shipped to protected beaches on the Atlantic coast. There, experts hope the turtles will hatch and swim into the sea.

Debby Crouse: Every single hatchling is an important contribution to the recovery and the future of the species.

Barbara Schroeder on the Gulf oil spill’s impact on sea turtles

Scientists don’t yet know if the turtles will be able to find food sources in the Atlantic ecosystem or navigate new ocean currents. There’s a chance they might not return to the Gulf of Mexico, Crouse said.

Debby Crouse: Sea turtles return to nest on the beaches they were laid on. So when we’re taking these eggs and these nests and moving them to another beach, we could be disrupting their imprinting, their ability to find a place to nest when they mature.

The evacuation plan, officially titled “Sea Turtle Late-Term Nest Collection and Hatchling Release Plan,” was developed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Crouse said that hatchlings would face certain death if they hatched and swam into the oil spill, and something had to be done.

Debby Crouse: This is being done as the best in a series of bad alternatives.

She said that although the process of moving the eggs is working as planned, it will take much longer to determine whether the plan to save the turtles was successful.

Debby Crouse: We will not know for years what the end result is because, for example, with loggerheads it takes decades from hatching to maturity. So we won’t really know about they come back to the Gulf as mature animals for many years.

Crouse said that before the oil spill, endangered species of Gulf sea turtles had been making a slow recovery. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles had just begun to recover after 40 years of effort, she added. The oil spill is a dangerous setback to the recovery of Gulf populations, Crouse said.

Debby Crouse: We hope that they would be able to come back to the Gulf or else we would have lost at least a year’s worth of turtles in the Gulf. Even if they survive in the Atlantic, there would not be turtles replacing them in the Gulf.

July 19, 2010

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