19 August 2008

Kemp's Ridley Hatchling Release II

The 114 Kemp's ridley hatchlings from Santa Rosa nest 6211 (June 21, nest #1) were finally ready to leave today. It was sad and lovely to see them swim away, but hopefully, they'll be back when they're old enough to nest themselves.

There were a lot of good questions on the beach this morning regarding Kemp's and sea turtles in general. One of the most common was how to help.

There are lots of ways to help sea turtles. Simple things like using sea turtle friendly lighting in Gulf front homes, closing curtains at night, removing beach chairs and umbrellas in the evening and keeping pets off the beach really help.

Refraining from using plastic bags or buying and releasing helium filled balloons that float away on the breeze, mimicking jellyfish in the water, can also help sea turtles. Kemp's aren't huge jelly aficionados, but leatherbacks and loggerheads love the watery treats.

Volunteering for Gulf Islands National Seashore, or another organization is another great option. There's even a beach clean-up on September 20th throughout the National Seashore that's a great way to help struggling hatchlings as they race down the beach. Can you imagine how huge a soda can looks to a one-ounce hatchling? Their newly hatched minds must be overwhelmed by the strange obstacle!

A lot of folks also asked about whether or not we were interfering with natural selection by shepherding the tiny turtles on their journey from nest to sea. I understand the question, but the answer is rather complicated.

Kemp's ridleys, like other sea turtles, have been in our seas for over 65 million years. They did really well until we discovered how easy they were to hunt. Once we started using their eggs and meat as a food source, and their skin for leather, their numbers plummeted.

Perhaps folks believed every one of the eggs they didn't poach would hatch and return as an adult the in next year or two. Maybe they thought the turtles could only nest once and then their reproductive value was expended. There may have been a lot of things these early hunters, even into the late 20th century, didn't understand about sea turtle biology. They were not intentionally hunted to the brink of extinction, but that's where we found ourselves 30 years ago. Hunting a food source until it disappears isn't a very smart survival technique for their human hunters either.

The turtles were almost lost. The record low 702 nests may have been from less than 200 nesting adults. It's hard to determine an exact number of nesting adults based on these numbers as not all nests are located, and females can lay anywhere from 1 to 5 nests in a nesting season.

At that point, protection of Kemp's ridleys became a priority in the consevation community. We didn't want to be responsible for the extinction of these beautiful, graceful swimmers. Intense recovery efforts were designed and implemented, including head-starting hatchlings at Texas A&M, imprinting hatchlings on sand from different locations and incubating nests on beaches remote from the main nesting site at Rancho Nuevo. We're slowly starting to see results as their numbers creep upwards. It takes about 15 years for a hatchling to reach maturity, so it will be a slow turn-around, but it is a promising trend.

Given all that information, it's easy to understand why we protect this species, and all turtle species. Their population declines were not natural, their nesting and foraging grounds are influenced greatly by human interaction, and their recovery, at this point, still requires some human attention. Even their nesting beaches are no longer natural as they have been recreated by dredges (often with the wrong size and type of sand and wrong beach slope), eroded due to the presence of deepened channels, and covered with high rise hotels and condos. Perhaps fifty or eighty or a hundred years from now, there will be enough turtles that they can again stand a chance against their natural predators. That day is not today, so for now, we keep the sea gulls, herons, ghost crabs, dogs and souvenir seekers at bay.

These turtles are a precious natural resource, a gift from the sea, and they must be protected to ensure they will survive our lack of understanding of their habitats, biology, needs and contributions to the complex ecosystems they utilize. We largely created their crash, and it's our responsibility to help them recover. Just my two cents :)

1 comment:

Peach said...

Hello there, I have a question for you - a more simple one this time! Do sea turtles hatch in every beach or do they need a specific environment? I'm curious to know wether they are sea turtles in Casablanca, which is a coastal town.

International Coastal Clean-Up!

The 2008 Coastal Clean-Up on Santa Rosa Island was a great success, but we can work together to make everyday a Coastal Clean-up Day... Help us keep our beaches beautiful!

For details on the 2009 coastal clean-up efforts in Pensacola or in your area, or other ways you can help, click here.

Hello World!

Hello World!
Which way to the sea?