Walking the Beach

Walking the Beach
BP Surveillance Team in Pass Christian on Memorial Day Weekend

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rescue on the High Seas

Well, ok, it wasn’t exactly on the high seas, but it was nothing short of a rescue.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged regarding my trip across the gulf coast – the images fromf that trip, in my opinion, were frightening; the incursion of thick, brown goo into Louisiana marshes, into the inlets and waterways of Alabama, and onto the sugar white sand beaches of Florida. In those posts, I introduced you to some of the players in the area, the leads and supporting actors, all with a role in the unfolding drama that is the Gulf oil spill.

My focus then was on some of the dynamic of the oil spill: in “silence is golden,” I wrote about some of the observations I had regarding the reluctance of BP workers to talk about what they were seeing and experiencing as part of the clean-up and protection efforts; in “Out of the Chaos,” I wrote about the unexpected reconnection, and sometimes new connection among people and communities as we join forces to face this environmental, economic, and psychological dimensions of the oil threat; in “who’s on first,” I went on a search for a unifying strategy that would tie together response activity in the gulf in the form of a coherent strategy – I found very little.

During the next couple days, I am back in the gulf area – focused more on some of the more exciting, and high-stakes activities in the gulf meant to support wildlife. In the next few posts, I will write about the work to rescue gulf sea turtles! The species that I’ll focus on today is the loggerhead sea turtle. The loggerhead is found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. It spends most of its life in saltwater and estuarine habitats, with females briefly coming ashore to lay eggs. Loggerhead sea turtles have a low reproductive rate; females lay an average of four egg clutches and then become quiescent, producing no eggs for two to three years. The loggerhead reaches sexual maturity within 17-33 years and has a lifespan of 47-67 years.

The loggerhead sea turtle is omnivorous, feeding mainly on bottom dwelling invertebrates. Its large and powerful jaws serve as an effective tool in dismantling its prey. Young loggerheads are exploited by numerous predators; the eggs are especially vulnerable to terrestrial organisms. Once the turtles reach adulthood, their formidable size limits predation to large marine organisms such as sharks.

Loggerheads are considered an endangered species and are protected by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature. Untended fishing gear is responsible for many loggerhead deaths. Turtles also suffocate when they are accidentally trapped in fishing trawls. Turtle excluder devices (TEDs) have been implemented in efforts to reduce mortality by providing the turtle an escape route. Loss of suitable nesting beaches and the introduction of exotic predators has also taken a toll on loggerhead populations. Efforts to restore their numbers will require international cooperation since the turtles roam vast areas of ocean and critical nesting beaches are scattered among several countries.

The realities of the loggerhead’s already fragile continued existence means that the oil spill in the gulf has pushed the species just that much closer to the brink. Nature’s strategy for insuring that loggerheads persist is to have them lay large quantities of eggs – it is not uncommon for a nest to have 100 – 200 eggs. The challenges of predation and the vagaries of living along side humans on increasing populated beaches/traditional nesting areas means that the oil has reduced, even further, the probability of hatchlings reaching adulthood.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has undertaken a bold project – to relocate hundreds of sea turtle nest that are now on gulf beaches to the east coast of Florida. In order to do this, the eggs have to be removed from the nests and transported across the state to places where they can hatch, and the hatchlings safely (safer-ly ….ok, I made that word up) released into the fresher waters of the Atlanta. Recently…as in yesterday (July 28, 2010), at 6:30 in the morning, Jeremy Symons, Senior Vice President for the National Wildlife Federation, my son, Jay Hammond, and I were allowed to tag along to observe the harvesting of a loggerhead nest. It was an amazing, and rare opportunity (see the story that appeared on the NBC nightly news recently Sea Turtle).

The nests have been marked so that they can be protected from beachgoers, and easily found by rescue workers.

Eggs are delicately collected and placed in specially assymbled boxes for transport to the east coast of Florida. Eggs are collected near the time of thier hatching, and taken to Kennedy Space Center, where they will be lauched (so to speak), boldly going where...well, you get the idea...

Finally, once the eggs are place gently in the boxes, and thermal couples are placed in the boxes, amongst the sand taken from the nest and eggs, the lid is sealed and the egg count attached. The precious cargo is ready for transport to the trucks, and then on to a brave new beginning. Just for your information, there are no eggs in the box Jay is holding -- we were allowed to observe only. We were never allowed to touch the eggs or the nest at any time --this requires trained professionals, so please, please do not attempt any high sea recues on your own -- there is too much at stake.

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