NOAA Scientists search for sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, LA. The rescued turtles are cleaned and transported to rehabilitation centers.
More than 600 sea turtles have been found dead and/or debilitated along the Gulf Coast since the oil spill started, and the numbers keep rising. The turtles’ deaths require further investigation because large numbers of dead turtles have not shown any visible signs of oil exposure. Scientists are regularly performing necropsies — animal autopsies — to be certain about the cause of death.
To help prevent turtles from being ensnared in trawl fishing gear, NOAA Fisheries currently requires the use of turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, in most shrimp fisheries and some trawl fisheries for flounder. A TED is a grid of bars with an opening at either the top or the bottom of the trawl net that enables turtles to escape.
A spill-related threat of turtle mortality that has increased concerns and motivated at least one lawsuit involves the controlled burning of patches of oil slick on the sea surface. In offshore waters, free-floating patches of Sargassum algae mixed with spilled oil accumulates in convergence zones, where strong opposing currents meet, making it easy to burn masses of oil on the sea surface.
Controlled burns are still widely regarded as the preferred method to prevent oil from washing up onto sensitive coastal areas where it can cause great harm to wildlife and precious ecosystems. Unfortunately, sea turtles, especially juveniles, gravitate to these algae islands for food and shelter. As a precaution, wildlife observers are working with the controlled-burn teams to spot and collect turtles in and around parts of the slick before the oiled algae patches are ignited.