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Researchers: 2010 BP Oil Spill May Have Caused Recent Spike in Sea Turtle Deaths

Two green sea turtles bask on a beach. Scientists say their nests have increased exponentially in Florida over the past two decades.
Two green sea turtles bask on a beach. Scientists say their nests have increased exponentially in Florida over the past two decades.

Exactly six years ago, the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil well started pouring millions of gallons of oil into the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico - and caused the largest marine oil spill in the nation’s history.

Karen Bjorndal, the director of the University of Florida’s Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, said scientists are still seeing effects of the spill today.

According to the Associated Press, members of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies are working to determine if a recent influx of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle deaths in Mississippi are linked to the spill.

“I’m not saying that they are being affected by the oil spill," Bjorndal said, "but we all know that the oil that was released into the Gulf of Mexico is going to have very long-lasting effects."

She said those effects are caused by deposits of oil lingering in the Gulf.

“There are still tremendous amounts of the oil and derivatives from the oil accumulated in the ocean bottom as well as throughout the water column; also in the marshes and under the upper layers of sand on nesting beaches,” Bjorndal said.

According to National Geographic, Kemp's ridley sea turtles are the world's most endangered sea turtles, and their worldwide nesting population numbers about 1,000 after a steady drop over the past century due to people over-harvesting their eggs. They can be found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, but their females typically lay eggs on a single beach, Rancho Nuevo, on Mexico's Gulf coast.

“Because the nesting numbers have declined since the BP oil spill, we’re very concerned that there’s an ongoing problem,” Bjorndal said.

In Florida’s Franklin, Walton and Escambia counties, 11 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles have been stranded on beaches in the past month. While this does not count as an exceptional spike, Karrie Minch, a wildlife technician with Florida's Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, said in an email that there is still cause for concern.

“There is always a concern when sea turtle strandings increase over a short period of time,” she said. “In Florida, sea turtle stranding are reported to [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] within 24 hours allowing us to keep track of what is happening statewide.”

She said the turtles in other Gulf States will most likely need to be examined to determine their causes of death, but that the influx may not be related to the oil spill, especially for stranded turtles in Florida.

“In Florida, natural disease, entanglements, and propeller related injuries from boats are some of the more common injuries we document,” she said.

Minch said counties can still take precautions, such as making sure citizens and boaters are aware that sea turtles are closer to the shore now due to sea turtle nesting season and asking citizens to help keep the beaches clean and to recycle monofilament fishing line.

“All of Florida’s coastal counties are taking appropriate measures to protect sea turtles since nesting season has started in some areas of the state and other areas will be seeing their first nest within the next month,” she said.

If you see a stranded sea turtle that is sick, injured or dead, call the FWC’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Number at 1-888-404-FWCC.

I am a journalism and sustainability studies student at the University of Florida.