Ever-increasing numbers of Homo sapiens are indirectly inflicting dire impacts on the most innocent of creatures, often threatening the respective species’ very survival. We think it is safe to say most of us are oblivious to the pending catastrophes.
The BP oil spill (“spill,” to us, is what you do accidentally with a cup of coffee, not a drilling rig) of April 2010 had more ramifications than we can go into here. But one innocent and helpless creature has become a profound bellwether of what humanity is inadvertently doing to the planet’s ecosystems.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles began washing up on Gulf shores last year. According to Defenders of Wildlife (www.defenders.org), there were so many that an investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS – www. nmfs.noaa.gov) determined that both the BP oil disaster and shrimp trawling were likely to blame. By last May, things had gotten so bad that Defenders and other conservation groups threatened to sue the NMFS unless it took action.
Scientists studying the impacts of the oil disaster have found shrimp inside the stomachs of many of the turtles. Shrimp are not normally part of a sea turtle’s diet. This anomaly indicates that these turtles died while caught up in shrimp gear and held underwater beyond their ability to survive without oxygen.
“To allow critically endangered sea turtles – which survived the biggest environmental disaster this country has ever faced – to now drown at unprecedented rates in fishing gear is tragic and unacceptable,” says Sierra Weaver, an attorney for Defenders, quoted in the fall 2011 Defenders magazine.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles breed and nest exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists rescued them from extinction after the nesting population dropped to fewer than 400 females in the early 1980s. During the first seven months of last year, 1,130 sea turtles were “stranded” – more than half of which were Kemp’s ridleys.
Exactly two years ago we visited Costa Rica. Our tour took us for a two-day visit to a remote area of the country called Tortuguero (loosely, “Turtle”) National Park. It is so named because loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill females nest on its beaches. As the accompanying photographs show, the beaches are strewn with trash washed up with the tides from the gulf. Of course all this detritus of human activity makes it difficult for the nesting females to enter motherhood. So while we humans have too many mothers, these five species of turtles – which are all protected under the Endangered Species Act – have to fight human carelessness in order to minimally maintain their own species.
While visiting the Tortuguero beaches we were amazed to see how much crap makes it to the western shores of the gulf. It got us wondering how much of this junk is still floating around out there.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Sea Food Watch” program (www.seafoodwatch.org) provides a semi-annual pocket-size Sustainable Seafood Guide that categorizes fish as “best choices,” “good alternatives” and “avoid.” Gulf shrimp fall into the good alternatives category. Using five criteria, Seafood Watch staff evaluates each type of consumable fish. They are very aware of the sea turtle dilemma and are concerned about whether to reclassify gulf shrimp into the “avoid” category. According to Seafood Watch spokesperson Alison Barrett, one of the criteria, “is looking at the actual bycatch – are you catching endangered or threatened species and what’s the impact on the population?”
The aquarium must evaluate every species and determine which human impacts are impacting which species within their relative ecological webs.
Comparing stats in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in the month of April between 1997 and 2011, the number of strandings has gone up about six-fold. As you would expect, the spike occurred in 2010 and 2011.
Here is what is most alarming: According to Defenders, scientists have determined that turtles that wash ashore represent only five percent of those that die. Because of this, spikes in the numbers killed usually indicate a dire situation.
Turtle excluder devices, commonly referred to as TEDs, effectively help turtles escape from fishing nets. Defenders of Wildlife is urging NMFS to expand the requirement for TEDs in the shrimp fishery. Defenders also wants to ban trawling altogether from turtle hotspots.
TED requirements are often not enforced, however. Louisiana, for example, prohibits its officials from enforcing the federal requirements, presumably because it wants to protect its important shrimping industry. Our guess is that Louisiana would do an about face if demand for turtle soup were to skyrocket, in which case the “Sportsmen’s Paradise” would be growing turtles like weeds and protecting them like fine art.
NMFS “Has known it’s had a problem for quite some time now,” says Defenders attorney Sierra Weaver. “Its answer has been to avoid action by continuing to study the problem. We now know that turtles need help. There simply is no justification for further delay.”
Demand for oil and subsequent “spills,” reckless and unrestrained fishing, and trash, are all contributing to the demise of endangered species. Yet we continue to over-reproduce. And as we work hard to move the less-fortunate among us out of poverty, we create ever greater demand for pricier foods, like shrimp, that consequently wreak havoc on sea life. Sea turtles are emblematic of what we are doing – and will continue to do – to our natural legacy, unless we think twice and decide there are enough of us.