By Harvey Rice
Ninety-four tiny members of the world’s most endangered sea turtle species struggled across the beach to reach the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday as park rangers waved away gulls looking for a quick meal.
Only a handful of the 3-inch Kemp’s ridley turtles will avoid predators and other dangers to become adults. Another threat to the species’ long climb back from near extinction over the last three decades, however, may be less obvious than predators.
Scientists in labs at the Padre Island National Seashore and Texas A&M University at Galveston are doing research to determine if the species was harmed by the 2010 BP oil spill caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon platform.
The research is part of a damage assessment being done on other species – including oysters, marine mammals and birds – but no other species is so linked to Texas.
The ridleys’ largest nesting grounds are in Mexico, but Texas is their main U.S. nesting ground. Most nests are found on Padre Island, although an increasing number is showing up in the Galveston area. Kemp’s ridleys are the only sea turtles whose primary population is found solely in the Gulf of Mexico.
The possible danger from the oil spill is masked by the record number of nests, 205, found so far this year on the Texas Coast. The number surpasses last year’s record of 199 nests, said Donna Shaver, chief of the National Parks Service sea turtle science and recovery division. More nests might be found before nesting season ends, usually about July 15.
The Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded April 20, 2010, just as the nesting season got under way. Oil fouled the area near Louisiana where female turtles normally go to forage for food after nesting.
Shaver said maps showing the movements of turtles tagged with satellite transmitters will be superimposed on maps of the oil spill.