Posted: Jun 30, 2010 9:50 AM by Melissa Canone
Updated: Jun 30, 2010 9:51 AM
PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - An effort to save thousands of sea
turtle hatchlings from dying in the oily Gulf of Mexico will begin
in the coming weeks in a desperate attempt to keep an entire
generation of threatened species from vanishing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will coordinate the plan,
which calls for collecting about 70,000 turtle eggs in up to 800
nests buried in the sand across Florida Panhandle and Alabama
It's never been done on such a massive scale. But doing nothing,
experts say, could lead to unprecedented deaths. There are fears
the turtles would be coated in oil and poisoned by crude-soaked
"This is an extraordinary effort under extraordinary
conditions, but if we can save some of the hatchlings, it will be
worth it as opposed to losing all of them," said Chuck Underwood
of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We have a much higher degree of certainty that if we do
nothing and we allow these turtles to emerge and go into the Gulf
and into the oil ... that we could in fact lose most of them, if
not all of them," he added. "There's a chance of losing a whole
Dozens of workers are fanned out across the coast marking turtle
nests, most of them threatened loggerheads, which nest largely
along Florida Panhandle and Alabama beaches.
In about 10 days, they will begin the arduous process of
excavating the nests, mostly by hand. The digging must be slow and
delicate - aside from making sure the shells don't crack, the eggs
can't be rolled around or repositioned to protect the embryo
Then the eggs will be carefully placed in specially designed
Styrofoam containers, like coolers, along with sand and moisture to
mimic the natural nest. The containers will then be trucked about
500 miles east to a temperature-controlled warehouse at Florida's
Kennedy Space Center.
There, the eggs will remain until hatchlings emerge, and they
will be placed one-by-one on Florida's east coast, where the
turtles can swim oil-free into the Atlantic Ocean.
"There's a whole lot of unknowns in what we're doing,"
Underwood acknowledged, noting many of the hatchlings could die
anyway because of the stressful moving process.
All of the sea turtles that venture into Gulf waters have
already suffered because of commercial fishing and habitat loss.
Endangered Kemp's ridleys, which are nesting on beaches in Mexico
and Texas, have washed up by the dozens dead along Gulf beaches
since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that has gushed
up to 130 million gallons of oil into the sea.
While some have been found oiled, it remains unclear how many of
them died because of it. Tests are ongoing. The Kemp's ridleys
aren't in as immediate of danger because oil hasn't been washing
ashore yet in their nesting places in the western Gulf. But some
fear those hatchlings also could eventually make it into the crude.
Threatened loggerheads, which are currently being considered for
the added protection of endangered status, also have been found
oiled and dead since the spill started, along with leatherbacks and
David Godfrey, executive director of the Gainesville, Fla.-based
Sea Turtle Conservancy, agrees this plan is the only option to save
as many turtles as possible.
He said if left alone, the turtles will soon begin emerging from
their nests and heading straight out to sea to feed in masses of
Even more unusual, in a field that typically sees division
between government entities and conservationists, there is
agreement on what to do. Teri Shore, program director with the
California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, said she thought
the plan was good given the circumstances.
"If those sea turtles swim out to the Gulf, they're going to
face a massive oil slick which will cause them to perish or at
least significantly decrease their chances of survival," she said.
Godfrey said he agreed with the strategy and called it a
"pretty amazing plan" because conservationists rarely support
relocating sea turtle nests. They often push for a change in human
behaviors, such as dimming lights along beaches at night to avoid
But no one can control the oil, he noted.
"We're talking about allowing the entire year's class of
hatchlings to emerge and swim to their certain doom, and are we
just going to sit back and let that happen?" he said. "We just