Endangered sea turtles found on Louisiana islands for first time in 75 years

Endangered sea turtles found on Louisiana islands for first time in 75 years

For the first time in 75 years, hatchlings of the world’s smallest sea turtle species have been discovered on the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of New Orleans.

Wildlife experts at the Breton national wildlife refuge have documented more than 53 turtle crawls and two live hatchlings that were navigating towards the sea, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority announced in a press statement this week.

The news was particularly uplifting for environmentalists because the hatchlings were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, an endangered species that also happens to be the world’s smallest sea turtle. The turtles are predominantly found in the Gulf, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their population flourished during the early 1900s as tens of thousands of females nested in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. However, from the mid-1900s to the 1980s, their population dropped drastically, reaching a low of only several hundred females.

Some of the major threats Kemp’s ridleys face include being caught unintentionally by fishers, being harvested or having their eggs harvested, degradation of their nesting habitats, natural predators preying on their eggs and hatchlings, being struck by sea vessels, ocean pollution and climate change.

The recent discovery of the hatchlings in Louisiana is particularly significant as 95% of the nesting take place in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“Louisiana was largely written off as a nesting spot for sea turtles decades ago, but this determination demonstrates why barrier island restoration is so important,” said the coastal authority’s chairman, Chip Kline.

He added: “As we develop and implement projects statewide, we are always keeping in mind what’s needed to preserve our communities and enhance wildlife habitat. Having this knowledge now allows us to make sure these turtles and other wildlife return to our shores year after year.”

The BP oil spill resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion significantly affected the Chandeleur Islands, along with various hurricanes and other tropical weather systems in recent years. As a result, the coastal authority and Louisiana’s wildlife and fisheries department have been closely monitoring the islands since May as part of a regional effort to restore them. The effort involves replenishing and protecting various marine life that have been affected by the oil spill.

“It is well known that the Chandeleur Islands provide key habitats for a host of important species; however, with the recent discovery of a successful Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatching, the islands’ value to the region has been elevated,” said the wildlife and fisheries department’s secretary, Jack Montoucet.

“We are gaining a better understanding of the benefits this barrier island restoration may provide in the recovery of this endangered species across the Gulf of Mexico.”

The coastal authority’s executive director, Bren Haase, added: “We have a responsibility to protect the wildlife here, and that means creating safe and nourishing environments for these turtles and other animals that call Louisiana home. It’s an exciting discovery, and we hope to see additional hatchlings emerging in the weeks and years to come.”

The peak of sea turtle nesting season runs from June through July, with most hatchlings beginning to emerge 50 to 60 days later. Additional nests may be discovered in the weeks to come, according to the coastal authority.

In addition to Kemp’s ridleys, wildlife experts have also discovered the threatened loggerhead sea turtles nesting on the islands.

This article by Maya Yang was first published by The Guardian on 21 August 2022. Lead Image: In the second half of the 20th century, the population of the Kemp’s ridley turtle dropped drastically, reaching a low of only several hundred females. Photograph: AP.

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