Operation Turtle Rescue
NWF Teams Up With the Sea Turtle Conservancy to Save Hatchlings from Imminent Demise
It’s been nearly five months since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, spewing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. While the majority of news about the spill has made it difficult to stay positive, every once in a while a story appears that catches you by surprise. This is one of those pieces.
In response to the spill, the National Wildlife Federation has teamed up with a number of organizations dedicated to helping impacted wildlife and habitat. One such organization is the Sea Turtle Conservancy based in Gainesville, FL.
According to David Godfrey, Director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the relationship was a natural fit.
"NWF wanted to support our work of helping sea turtles after the spill,” said Godfrey. “They're a big organization with a large national membership and resources, and we're here in Florida with great contacts and expertise dealing with sea turtles.”
“While the money is going to come in handy in supporting the important work of the Conservancy, it’s only a fraction of what is needed to right the terrible wrong that has been visited upon so many species of the Gulf,” said NWF Regional Executive Director John Hammond.
Human threats to turtle survival
Long before the oil spill, turtles around the globe were facing a number of challenges.
“Their main threat stems from human activities,” reveals Godfrey. “For hundreds of years people have been eating turtle meat and eggs, and that has been the main cause of their decline. Some species are doing better than others, but sea turtles around the world are threatened with extinction and they're a very slow to mature species.”
In fact, it takes 30 or more years for a hatchling to reach adulthood. Taking that into account, it’s all the more important to note that the peak of the spill coincided with sea turtle nesting around the Gulf’s beaches. When the true magnitude of the spill was finally discovered, the STC realized the impending danger to these already scarce and fragile turtles required serious and immediate attention.
A monumental undertaking
“Experts with the state and federal agencies sought our input about a plan to perhaps do something unprecedented, which is to relocate the nests in that section of coastline where there was no alternative but for the hatchlings to swim through that oil,” said Godfrey. “We endorsed and supported a very unique plan to relocate the eggs from those beaches to a safe hatchery on the East coast of Florida where they could be released into the Atlantic.”
The transportation process was a monumental undertaking. The eggs needed to first be located and then delicately excavated. From there, the eggs were to be carefully placed in specially designed coolers for the 7-hour trip to the incubation center at the Kennedy Space Center.
“Not only was the plan to move all these eggs unprecedented, but the level of involvement by different stakeholders in implementing the plan was also pretty unprecedented,” explained Godfrey. “You had local volunteer organization monitoring the beaches and finding the nests, state and fed regulators ultimately responsible for the entire coordination and authorization of the program, non-profits like the Sea Turtle Conservancy and NWF stepping up to provide support for that plan – some financing, some direct staff support, and then a huge company (FedEx) providing the transportation. So it was really a unique public-private-cooperative partnership involved working together for a really good goal.”
The silver lining
While the full extent of the oil spill’s impact on sea turtles remains relatively uncertain, the relocation program was an overwhelming success. In the end, more than 14,000 hatchlings – that would have otherwise likely ended up in oiled Gulf waters - were safely released into the Atlantic.
Additionally, Godfrey suggests that the general awareness generated from this disaster could actually have a beneficial result for the fate of all sea turtles.
“If there is a silver lining it’s that more people are aware how important the Gulf is for sea turtles,” said Godfrey. “Just having that public awareness is something that’s happened because of the spill. Hopefully we can take that awareness and focus it in the direction of some of the other threats that were there long before the spill and will be here long after.”