This is a guest post by Carole H. Allen, Gulf Office Director, Sea Turtle Restoration Project (www.seaturtles.org)
In 1906, Richard Kemp spotted a sea turtle on a Florida beach and later had the honor of adding his name to its identification. Years passed with little attention paid to the Kemp’s ridley until June, 1947, when Andres Herrera made an amateur movie that documented, for the first time, an arribada (arrival) of Kemp’s ridleys—some 42,000 females nesting in a single day at Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Villagers excavated most of those nests, however, and harvested some 80 to 90 percent of the eggs that were laid. Decades later, though, the ridleys faced almost certain extinction; between 1978 and 1991, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimated that only 200 Kemp’s ridleys were nesting annually.
My personal involvement with the ridleys began in 1982, when, as a volunteer, I took elementary school students to Galveston to see hatchlings being raised in a desperate attempt to save the species. The students organized HEART (Help Endangered Animals-Ridley Turtles) and began to work for the ridleys. Always my most powerful volunteers, students have written letters to legislators calling for turtle excluder device (TED) regulations and enforcement of laws protecting ridleys, and have pooled their nickels and dimes to buy food for hatchlings. Thousands of children have visited the Galveston facility, creating a higher level of public awareness about the killing of sea turtles—particularly by the shrimping industry.
As the Mexican government protected the ridleys’ nesting beaches and officers in the Gulf of Mexico enforced TED regulations, populations of Kemp’s ridleys began to grow. Things were looking good for the ridleys—so much so that the joint United States-Mexico recovery plan predicted a 19 percent population increase from 2010 to 2020 that would lead to a down-listing under the Endangered Species Act. But that was too good to be true.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ridleys were killed in the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Nest numbers dropped in Tamaulipas and Texas in 2010, and again in 2013. The NMFS has backed away from requiring TEDs on skimmer trawls, and Louisiana refuses to enforce TED regulations in their state waters, placing thousands of turtles in jeopardy. Sadly, each March and April, as shrimping activity increases along the Texas coast, dead adult female ridleys—the most valuable of all—wash ashore. Why not declare a closure to shrimping for the nesting season?
Research confirms that ridleys are migrating and foraging along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. With the need for additional “safe zones” for nesting for the ridleys, the opposition of US Fish and Wildlife to allow the hatching of eggs and releasing of hatchlings where the nests are found on the Upper Texas Coast is unfortunate. Critical habitat is declared for other sea turtle species; why not more habitat protections for Kemp’s ridleys?
Although the Kemp’s ridley population revived from near-extinction 25 years ago, it seems to be losing ground. Will we allow this to happen, or will we step up to enforce existing laws and put in place new ones where they are needed? If we don’t demand action, nothing will be done.
For more information about the Kemp’s ridley, see “The Heartbreak Turtle Today” at www.seaturtles.org