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Sea Turtle Deaths Mount in the Gulf

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Sea turtles continue to wash ashore along the Gulf, forcing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to scramble and figure out what is causing the spike. Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Huffington Post were first to publish blogs about the sea turtle deaths in Mississippi. 

Since then, the national media  picked up the story. Last Friday, NMFS released a statement with some details about its investigation:

In the past few weeks, we've seen an increase in turtle strandings in the northern Gulf, primarily in Mississippi. The spring time is the typical time when turtle strandings in this region begin to increase, but the sharp increases in recent days are of concern to us".NOAA Fisheries is in contact with the states of MS and LA regarding current trawl and other fishery activity that can result in turtle by catch and mortality.  In addition, tests will be done for biotoxins, such as those from harmful algae blooms, which are common in the Gulf. "All causes of death, including petroleum, will be investigated when possible based on decomposition.  During a necropsy, the full GI tract is examined for product or evidence of oil ingestion.  Additionally, samples are taken for PAH analysis. In addition, all turtles are being carefully examined for signs of external oiling.

Like the dolphin strandings this year, it's likely that many more turtles have died and will never be found. A recent study of dolphin deaths showed the true number of mortalities is probably 50 times what is recovered. As of Friday, NOAA says recent deaths of sea turtles, all of which are included on the Endangered Species list, include 6 in Alabama, 10 in Louisiana, and 47 in Mississippi.  

Dead sea turtles found recently in Waveland, MS         Photos by Shirley Tillman

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Make that at least 50 confirmed sea turtle deaths in Mississippi. This weekend, Pass Christian resident Shirley Tillman found three more dead turtles. Altogether, she has found nine this year. Over her more than 30 years in the community, she has never seen a dead turtle before.

On Saturday, she took another walk on the beach, this time with a PBS television producer. Within an hour they found one turtle badly decomposed and hidden in marsh grass near Waveland. Shirley says she only discovered it because of the smell. On Sunday she went back to check on the turtle, which had been spray-painted orange for pick-up by authorities. That's when she was told there was yet another dead turtle on the beach nearby.

"It's crazy that I go out there nearly every day and find them. It makes me mad that NOAA is now trying to blame the shrimp fishermen for killing them in their nets when the shrimp season isn't even open yet and hardly any boats are out there."

Shrimp fishermen feel the same way. They are required to use turtle excluders, devices that allow turtles to escape drowning in shrimp nets. Every year some turtles are killed by fishing boats inadvertently, but shrimpers say to blame them for the recent jump in turtle deaths is hard to believe.   

"It's about as ridiculous as anything else I heard during this whole oil spill," said Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry. "This time of year shrimp fishermen are fixing their boats and getting ready for the main season that begins in May. I guess they've run out of excuses after saying everything is being killed by dead zones and algae, so now they need to blame us."

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Sea turtle found near Long Beach, MS        Photo by Laurel Lockamy

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www.nrdc.org/blogs/rkistner/
Rocky Kistner is a media associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Since June, 2010, he has focused on the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, working out of NRDC's Gulf Resource Center in Buras, LA. He is a been a print and broadcast (more...)
 

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