Beautmont Enterprise: Kemp's ridley turtle numbers at record levels in Texas
A record number of endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle nests was found in Texas this year despite worries that nesting could be harmed by the BP oil disaster and a cold winter that killed hundreds of turtles.
The increase in Texas is overshadowed by the disappointing number of nests found near the central nesting ground at Rancho Nuevo in Mexico's Tamaulipas state. The increase failed to match the previous record, leaving scientists worried about the turtle's long-term prospects.
As of Monday, 199 nests had been found along the Texas Coast, the largest number since record-keeping began in the early 1980s. The Upper Texas Coast set a record as well, with 22 nests found from the Matagorda Peninsula to Sabine Pass. Most were found on Galveston Island, which also set a record with 15 nests.
Scientists counted between 18,000 and 20,000 nests near Rancho Nuevo, up from the 13,000 counted last year. The count is still below the record 22,000 recorded in 2009, said Pat Burchfield, U.S. field group coordinator with the binational Kemp's ridley project.
The Kemp's ridley, once virtually extinct, had been making a slow comeback before recent nesting numbers put its future in doubt, Burchfield said. "Up until last year we were seeing a 14 to 15 percent increase, but now we don't know," he said. "We are still optimistic that it's coming back."
Oil spill effects a worry
The record nesting year in Texas comes after a plunge last year preceded by five years of steady gains. After reaching 197 nests in 2009, the number plunged to 139 last year. The sudden drop worried scientists because the nesting season, which runs roughly from April 1 to July 15, came during a period when a huge section of the Gulf was covered with oil from the ruptured wellhead at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform.
Scientists found scores of dead juvenile Kemp's ridleys floating among oil-fouled debris in the deep ocean while some 500 dead turtles, most of them Kemp's ridleys, were discovered closer to shore.
Although the increase this year is a good sign, scientists are being cautious about its significance. The effects of the BP oil still could surface years from now.
"It's a record just by a very few nests and these are species that mature at 10 to 15 years of age," said Donna Shaver, U.S. Park Service chief of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore. "If very young classes were impacted, it may take years for us to find out what the results are."
If not a sure sign of the Kemp's ridley's recovery, the figures show that greater numbers are choosing the Upper Texas Coast as nesting ground, said André Landry Jr., director of the Sea Turtle and Fisheries Ecology Research Laboratory at Texas A&M Galveston.
"We are the only portion that has had consistent increases," said Landry, who pioneered Kemp's ridley research on the Upper Texas Coast. "It's been a good year, definitely."
No Bolivar comeback
A significant number of the total nests discovered by the Texas A&M turtle patrol in years before Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008 were on the Bolivar Peninsula, Landry said. But no nests were found there in 2009 and only three last year. "This is a bit of a mystery to me," he said.
Reasons could be the sand swept away by Hurricane Ike, vehicular traffic on the beach and beach cleaning with heavy equipment, Landry said.