Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Press Register/Alabama.com: Wildlife officials to move thousands of sea turtle eggs to Florida's east coast

Published: Tuesday, June 29, 2010, 5:00 AM
Ryan Dezember, Press-Register Ryan Dezember, Press-Register

Federal wildlife officials are moving ahead with a plan to move up to 50,000 eggs off oil-ravaged beaches to the eastern coast of Florida, a plan officials acknowledge has risks.
Federal wildlife officials plan to move tens of thousands of sea turtle eggs from oil-plagued beaches along the northern Gulf to Florida's east coast, where the reptiles would hatch in a controlled environment and be released into the Atlantic Ocean.

Made public over the weekend, the 10-page plan details the procedure for digging up as many as 50,000 ping-pong-ball-sized eggs from some 800 nests in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, packing them into sand-filled Styrofoam coolers and transporting them via plane to a Florida facility.

"This plan is painful to everyone," said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokeswoman Bonnie Strawser, who is stationed at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Gulf Shores. "We don't think it's a perfect plan, but it's better than losing 100 percent of them."

The plan's authors with the Fish & Wildlife Service make clear in a companion document that they are pursuing the unprecedented relocation with trepidation.

There are "definite, but unquantifiable risks" involved in handling the threatened and endangered species' eggs and "mortality beyond natural levels must be expected," but the current situation in the Gulf requires extraordinary and previously unthinkable measures, the Wildlife Service said.

"In developing this plan we realized early that our expectations for success must be rooted in the knowledge that doing nothing would most likely result in the loss of most, if not all, of this year's northern Gulf of Mexico hatchling cohort," government scientists wrote.

About 70 turtle nests are laid on Alabama's beaches each year between late spring and the end of September. As of Monday, 16 had been laid in Baldwin County along with one on Dauphin Island, said Mike Reynolds, director of the Share the Beach program, in which volunteers comb the beach each morning looking for the tell-tale tracks mothers make when they waddle up the beach to nest.

Discovering nests the morning after they're laid is crucial because the relocation plan calls for eggs to be excavated between the 51st and 53rd day of incubation. The length of time turtle eggs take to incubate varies depending on climate factors, but eggs generally hatch between 55 and 75 days after they are laid.

By allowing the eggs to stay in the sand as long as possible, scientists are hoping that the turtles will still develop what is known as their natal imprint that drives their instinct to return to the beaches from which they emerged to reproduce, Strawser said.

Some studies suggest that hatchlings acquire this sense of home while still in their eggs, Strawser said.

The Fish & Wildlife Service also noted in its plan that while turtles born on the northern Gulf and those from the Atlantic have minor genetic differences, currents have been known to carry Gulf turtles into the Atlantic.

Some scientists estimate that as few as 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive to reproductive age 10 to 20 years after they hatch. Documents show that federal scientists ran their plan past numerous experts and several state agencies in recent weeks. And an opinion emerged that with such long odds already facing young sea turtles, it was less risky to move them to the Atlantic than to allow them to waddle into almost certain death facing them in the Gulf.

Even if a hatchling were to avoid oil at water's edge, the rafts of rough seaweed, or sargassum, that they float in and feed upon during their formative years are likely to be fouled by oil.

"Everyone agrees this has to be done," Reynolds said. "You can't let them go out there to get exposed to the oil."

© 2010 al.com. All rights reserved.

No comments: