U.S. to try to rescue sea turtle eggs
PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — An effort to scoop thousands of turtle eggs from their nests to save them from death in the oily Gulf of Mexico will begin in the coming weeks in a desperate attempt to keep an entire generation of threatened species from vanishing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will coordinate the plan, which calls for collecting about 70,000 turtle eggs in up to 800 nests buried in the sand across Florida Panhandle and Alabama beaches.
It’s never been done on such a massive scale. But doing nothing, experts say, could lead to unprecedented deaths. There are fears that the turtles would be coated in oil and poisoned by crude-soaked food as they hatch and swim out to sea.
“This is an extraordinary effort under extraordinary conditions, but if we can save some of the hatchlings, it will be worth it as opposed to losing all of them,” said Chuck Underwood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We have a much higher degree of certainty that if we do nothing and we allow these turtles to emerge and go into the Gulf and into the oil ... that we could in fact lose most of them, if not all of them,” he added. “There’s a chance of losing a whole generation.”
Dozens of workers across the coast are marking turtle nests, most of them threatened loggerheads, which nest largely along the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coasts.
In about 10 days, they will begin the arduous process of excavating the nests, mostly by hand. The digging must be slow and delicate — aside from making sure the shells don’t crack, the eggs can’t be rolled around or repositioned to protect the embryo inside.
Then the eggs will be carefully placed in specially designed foam containers, like coolers, along with sand and moisture to mimic the natural nest. The containers will then be trucked about 500 miles east to a temperature-controlled warehouse at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
There, the eggs will remain until hatchlings emerge, and they will be placed one-by-one on Florida’s east coast, where the they can swim oil-free into the Atlantic Ocean. The turtles will soon start hatching and continue emerging over the next several months.
Even without an oil spill, the vast majority of hatchlings don’t make it to maturity, Underwood said.
“There’s a whole lot of unknowns in what we’re doing,” Underwood acknowledged, noting many of the hatchlings could die anyway because of the stressful moving process.