Unified Area Command Continues to Build a Sea Turtle Observer Program for On-Water Oil Clean-up
New Orleans, La. – The Unified Area Command (UAC) continues to build a sea turtle observer program for all on-water oil clean-up operations. The observers will primarily focus on controlled burn and skimmer fleet operations.
The command’s Wildlife Branch is working now to determine when, where, and how observers can be best positioned to reduce risks posed to sea turtles by oil containment and clean-up activities. In addition, the Wildlife Branch will begin to train additional sea turtle observers this weekend.
Throughout the spill, federal and state biologists have been surveying for and rescuing oiled sea turtles offshore using small vessels carrying trained sea turtle collection teams. To date, more than 100 sea turtles have been collected in these directed surveys, and more than 90 percent are alive at rehabilitation facilities.
If sea turtle observers can improve the sighting and collection of sea turtles prior to burn and skimming operations, then this is another way to reach more turtles in harm’s way and reduce additional risks posed to turtles by the oil spill.
In offshore waters, both free-floating patches of sargassum seaweed and spilled oil tend to accumulate in convergence zones, places in the ocean where strong opposing currents meet. Sea turtles, especially juveniles, use these areas for food and cover. Burn operations sometimes occur there because of the aggregated oil.
Burn operations are managed by the UAC, and are not to occur under poor meteorological conditions or if wildlife is spotted within the vicinity of a burn area prior to ignition. Burns can be stopped immediately by allowing fire-resistant boom surrounding the operational area to open and the oil to spread too thin to support combustion.
Sea turtles, air-breathing reptiles with streamlined bodies and large flippers, inhabit tropical, subtropical, and temperate oceans throughout the world. Of the seven species of sea turtles, five of these species can be found in the Gulf of Mexico-leatherback, green, Kemps ridley, hawksbill, and loggerhead. The Gulf of Mexico is the only place in the world where Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nest. All five species are listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Since the early days of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response, about just over 275 controlled burn operations have taken place in the Gulf of Mexico to reduce the amount of oil expected to impact the coastline. To date, just under 10 million gallons have been burned, nearly the same amount of oil spilled during the 1989 10.8 million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill. Burning oil at sea reduces beach and shoreline impacts, the waste generated by conventional beach cleanup, and the amount of oil that will affect wildlife as it spreads beyond the burn area.