Of immediate concern is the fate of hundreds of sea turtle nests that are being deposited right now by nesting loggerhead turtles along the north Gulf coast of Florida. Under normal circumstances, hatchlings from this coast would begin emerging from their nests after incubating for about 60 days and immediately swim out into the Gulf in search of floating mats of sargassum seaweed, where they find shelter and food for the first few years of life. Unfortunately, oil from the spill is accumulating in the same areas where the hatchlings would be heading. Conditions are so bad that there is very little chance any of this year’s hatchlings in the Panhandle would survive.
In response to this dire situation, federal and state officials (with input and assistance from the Sea Turtle Conservancy) have made a bold decision to relocate all of the nests from this part of the Gulf Coast to an incubation facility set up at the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast. The idea is to release the hatchlings into the Atlantic, where they have a far greater chance of surviving.
On average, about 700 nests are laid by turtles in this region each summer. Considering there are about 100 eggs in each nest, this adds up to an estimated 70,000 eggs that will be need to be carefully excavated, stored in special containers and transported to the east coast. As the hatchlings emerge inside their containers, they will be allowed to crawl down the beach and into the sea at a variety of locations on the east coast.
The operation is being coordinated by staff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Marine Fisheries Service and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are being assisted by a well-trained network of local sea turtle monitors from the Panhandle, as well as the Sea Turtle Conservancy and other contractors with years of experience working with sea turtles in Florida.
Each nest will be allowed to incubate in place until about the 50-day point, and then they will be carefully excavated and placed in specialized incubation containers. It is particularly encouraging that FedEx has stepped up to provide their expertise in shipping sensitive cargo in order to transport all of the eggs to the incubation site at the Space Center. FedEx has dedicated climate-controlled trucks and full-time drivers who will continually pick up and transport containers of eggs that are ready to be shipped. The transfer process will continue for two or more months as all of the nests gradually reach the 50-day mark.
All of the agencies, organizations and people working on this relocation strategy are very dedicated to getting it right, and the program has a high probability of success. As an independent, nonprofit group dedicated to the protection of sea turtles, the Sea Turtle Conservancy is providing its expertise to the operation as needed. We have been assisting with construction of the 1,500 or so modified coolers that will be used to hold and incubate the eggs. And in the coming weeks and months, we expect to be assisting with nest excavations and hatchling releases within the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s east coast. The Sea Turtle Conservancy normally would be opposed to the relocation of nests, but this is a highly unique situation. Given the conditions in the Gulf, we are supportive of the relocation plan and think the protocol now in place will minimize the potential risks associated with moving the nests and will give tens of thousands of sea turtle hatchlings a fighting chance at survival.
Sea Turtle Conservancy also has formulated a plan to begin mitigating for the impacts of the oil spill on sea turtles. Because the oil disaster is still unfolding, the first phase of the plan is to eliminate as many other causes of sea turtle mortality as possible. Of course, the damage caused by the spill can never be undone, but BP and other entities are looking to contribute immediately to sea turtle conservation in other ways. Our plan was accepted by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is handling some of the money being earmarked to begin addressing environmental impacts. Sea Turtle Conservancy is leading a major effort to identify and fix problem lights all around Florida that have been disorienting hatchlings. In the past, we could only ask homeowners and businesses to fix their lights. Now, we will actually design a lighting fix and pay for the installation. Next, we will conduct a major initiative to expand the capacity of every sea turtle rehabilitation facility in Florida to care for more turtles and give them the best veterinary care possible. We will provide for new turtle storage tanks, state-of-the-art surgical and medical equipment, medicines and supplies. There are several other aspects to the plan, including significant public outreach activities, predator control measures and even dune restoration in areas impacted by recent erosion.
The issues confronting sea turtles and their habitats as a result of the Gulf oil spill will be complex and long-lasting. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is committed to playing a leadership role in the direct rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles impacted by the spill, while also conducting policy and educational campaigns that ensure we never experience another disaster of this magnitude. Though we have recently changed our name, our single-minded dedication to sea turtle conservation has only become stronger in the face of the oil crisis. We hope our long-term and new members will continue supporting our important efforts on behalf of sea turtles.