BP Accused of Killing Endangered Sea Turtles in Cleanup Operation

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

BP Accused of Killing Endangered Sea Turtles in Cleanup Operation

Environmentalists press Obama administration to put a halt to BP's 'burn fields' to dispose of oil from the Gulf spill

by
Suzanne Goldenberg

A Kemp's Ridley turtle rescued from the BP oil spill is cleaned up at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans. (Photograph: Bevil Knapp/EPA)

Conservationists and wildlife experts have accused BP of indiscriminately burning alive
endangered sea turtles and other marine creatures in 500
sq mile "burn fields", as it tries to dispose of oil from its leak in
the Gulf of Mexico.

The killing of the turtles – which once
teetered on the brink of extinction – has outraged environmentalists,
and could put BP into even deeper legal jeopardy.

Environmental
organisations are demanding that BP stop blocking rescue of the turtles,
and are pressing the Obama administration to
halt the burning, and look at prosecuting the oil company and its
contractors for killing endangered species during the cleanup operation.
Harming or killing a sea turtle carries fines of up to $50,000
(£33,000).

"It is criminal and it is cruel and they need to be
held accountable," said Carole Allen, Gulf office director of the Sea
Turtle Restoration Project. "There should not be another lighting of a
fire of any kind till people have gone in there and looked for turtles."
Government scientists are also pressing BP to post wildlife experts as
turtle spotters on its cleanup vessels to try to rescue the animals
before the oil is lit – or at the very least give them access to the
burn fields.

"One can't just ride through an area where they are
burning and expect to be safe while looking for turtles. We don't expect
that, but we would like to access those areas where we suspect there
may be turtles," said Blair Witherington, a sea turtle research
scientist at Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

More
than 425 turtles are known to have died in the spill zone since 30
April, according to the government's National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
agency.

Conservationists say the
losses could imperil the long-term survival of the creatures. All five
species of turtles found in the Gulf are endangered or threatened: the
Kemp's Ridley most of all.

But in a video posted on YouTube, Mike
Ellis, a skipper from Venice, Louisiana, accuses BP of chasing away a
boat of conservationists trying to rescue turtles caught in the oil and
weed a few miles away from the leak.

"They ran us out of there and
then they shut us down," said Ellis.

On days when the weather is
fine and there is relatively no wind, BP conducts up to a dozen
"controlled burns", torching vast expanses of the ocean surface within a
corral of fireproof booms.

Biologists say such burns are deadly
for young turtles because oil and sargassum – the seaweed mats that
provide nutrients to jellyfish and a range of other creatures –
congregate in the same locations. The sargassum is also a perfect
hunting ground for young sea turtles, who are not developed enough to
dive to the ocean floor to forage for food.

Once BP moves in, the
turtles are doomed. "They drag a boom between two shrimp boats and
whatever gets caught between the two boats, they circle it up and catch
it on fire. Once the turtles are in there, they can't get out," Ellis
said.

The heartbreak for conservationists is that the floating
islands created by the convergence of sargassum and oil offer the best
chance of finding and saving young turtles before they suffocate on the
crude. But it can also be deadly.

"When they breathe and come to
the surface, they get a mouthful and a bellyful of toxic substance that
is very much like wallpaper paste," said John Hewitt, the director of
husbandry at the New Orleans aquarium. "It completely coats the body
including the cornea of the eyes. If we don't remove them and clean them
up in three or four days that probably spells the end of the turtle."

Since
the spill, the aquarium has taken in 90 sea turtles, scrubbing the oil
off their shells with toothbrushes and washing-up liquid, and flushing
their digestive systems of oil using activated carbon and mayonnaise
solutions. So far, there is still room in the aquarium. But as the spill
continues, and the turtles grow, keeping them could be a challenge.

Even
before the fires, the two-month gusher in the Gulf of Mexico was
threatening the long-term survival of sea turtles.

"This is the
worst calamity that I have ever seen for sea turtles," said David
Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. "This is
really the cradle of sea turtle reproduction for the western
hemisphere."

The threat to the turtles could continue well after
the gusher is capped. The oil spill is turning vast expanses of the Gulf
into a dead zone, killing off the jellyfish, crabs and conches that are
the staples of an adult diet.

Conservationists are also worried
about the survival of the next generation of loggerhead turtles, whch
are about to climb up on to badly oiled shorelines to begin their
nesting season. "They are doomed, doomed," said Godfrey.

Godfrey
said his organisation is working on plans to dig up about 1,000 nests,
or 100,000 eggs, from nesting grounds in the Florida Panhandle and
transfer them to hatcheries for safekeeping. "It is a last gasp measure
to save 100,000 young sea turtles," he said. "We need every one of these
turtles to survive."

Share This Article

More in: