Sea Turtles Impacted By Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Sea turtle being scrubbed with toothbrush

Traveling sea turtles were greatly impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers from the University of Miami (UM) report in a new study. When investigating the 87 day-long spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico, researchers found young turtles arriving at nesting beaches in the area from across the Atlantic Ocean likely trudged through contaminated waters.

“There is a perception that the spill’s impacts were largely contained to the northern Gulf of Mexico, because that is where the oil remained,” Nathan Putman, lead author of the recent study and researcher from UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said in a news release. “However, this overlooks the movement of migratory and dispersive marine animals into the area from distant locations.”

Using a computer model, researchers were able to track how juvenile sea turtles traveling across the Atlantic most likely came into contact with oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill site. Their simulation revealed upwards of 320,000 green (Chelonia mydas), loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) turtles were likely present within the spill site. Furthermore, researchers say more than 95 percent of sea turtles surrounding the spill site are thought to have originated from outside of the U.S., including those from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, northern South America, and western Africa.

“Our findings give new geopolitical context to the scope of the spill, placing its impacts far beyond the present focus on the northern Gulf of Mexico,” Putman added in the university’s release.

What’s worse is several of the impacted sea turtle species — the leatherback, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, and loggerhead sea turtles, for example — are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Their findings, recently published in the journal Biology letters, could be used to improve marine conservation efforts in the future.


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