A sea turtle, seen from behind, in shallow waters with its shell above the water.

For sea turtles, a new opportunity out of tragedy

Alabama using Deepwater Horizon settlement to reduce threats to sea turtles

by Sydney Cromwell

Every summer, hundreds of newly hatched sea turtles emerge from their sandy nests on beaches all along the Gulf Coast and make for the water.

But what happens when those baby turtles grow a little bit bigger and are living out in the vast ocean?

“We don’t know as much about those little ones, especially their movements,” said Meg Lamont, a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wetland and Aquatic Research Center.

There are lots of unanswered questions about Alabama’s sea turtle species: the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the green sea turtle and the loggerhead sea turtle. However, we do know that all three species’ Gulf populations are threatened or endangered, facing threats from habitat loss to commercial fishing to light pollution.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill destroyed habitats for sea turtles — plus many other aquatic species and coastal industries — when it dumped 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“There was quite a bit of documented injury to turtles because of the spill,” said Dianne Ingram, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

More than a decade later, a portion of the settlement funds BP has paid to Alabama are going toward learning more about the life cycle of the sea turtle and protecting it from manmade threats.

Four people are gathered around a sea turtle nest dug into a hole on a sandy beach. Several eggs are visible. The leader of the team has a bucket for collecting the eggs to move them to a safe location.
A team relocates a sea turtle nest at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Photo by Bonnie Strawser, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

THE FINANCIAL FOUNDATION

After the 2010 spill, BP agreed to a $20.8 billion settlement with the federal government, of which about $1.3 billion was given to Alabama for economic and environmental restoration projects. The state also received $1 billion from its own lawsuit against BP, to be divided between the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the state General Fund.

Both of these settlements will be paid out in installments through the early 2030s. Several cities and counties in Alabama were also awarded money in separate settlements.

These funds are allocated into different “buckets” based on the type of restoration project, Alabama DCNR restoration coordinator Amy Hunter said. The regional and state Trustee Implementation Groups (TIGs) make decisions about how the money is spent and which projects are approved.

An aerial view of the Gulf with the sheen of an oil slick visible. Several boats are trawling the water with booms and other equipment.
Boats skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Photo by DVIDSHUB, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For sea turtles, for example, Ingram said TIG state and federal partners create a framework for restoration based on known threats to the species, then states can tailor their projects from that framework to their specific needs. Ingram is a representative on the Florida TIG.

According to the DCNR’s Coastal Restoration Program website, about $790 million of Alabama’s settlement funds had been committed as of April 2020:

  • $308.3 million (39%) for habitat restoration and conservation projects
  • $147.7 million (19%) to economic development and infrastructure
  • $140 million (18%) to recreation and public access
  • $85.5 million (11%) to water quality restoration
  • $53 million (7%) to “living” resources like fish, birds, dolphins and sea turtles
  • $51 million (6%) to build community resilience against future natural disasters and coastal changes

An additional $81 million in Alabama projects were announced in April 2021.

The living resources “bucket” includes the Coastal Alabama Sea Turtles (CAST) and Restoring the Night Sky projects for Alabama sea turtles, which were approved by the Alabama TIG’s Restoration Plan II in 2018.

According to the NOAA restoration project map, CAST has several components: $1.6 million for habitat and population research; $935,000 for public education and support of the Share the Beach Program; $907,000 for increased enforcement of sea turtles’ protection under the Endangered Species Act; and $623,000 to construct a triage facility for sick or injured turtles in Orange Beach, a first for the state.

Restoring the Night Sky has almost $4.4 million budgeted for two projects to reduce light pollution for nesting and hatching turtles.

Projects to help sea turtles are also being funded in other states and the region as a whole. In September, NOAA and the Regionwide TIG announced their first restoration plan, coordinating efforts across the Gulf states. That plan includes $18.6 million for various sea turtle protection and restoration projects, as well as $7 million for finding and removing marine debris, which is funded from the project budgets for both turtles and coastal birds. Ingram said one of those priorities is reducing bycatch, which is the accidental capture or injury of sea turtles (and other species like dolphins and sea birds) by the fishing industry.

“This piece of the settlement has been really important for Alabama,” Hunter said. 

“We didn’t know very much about turtles using Alabama waters, so everything is new.”

Meg Lamont,
U.S. Geological Survey Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

Ingram said Alabama’s sea turtle projects will create a solid foundation for the state to better preserve the reptiles in the long term. Much of the research funded by the CAST project has never been done for the state’s turtle population before.

“The goal of all of this is to help the restoration folks then say, ‘OK, we might target this area, or this time of year, or this resource,’” Lamont said.

THE MYSTERIES OF THE SEA TURTLE

Sea turtle researchers have to overcome two major obstacles, Lamont said: turtles live a long time, and they travel a long distance.

“It’s hard to make these generalizations about them,” she said.

From the beaches where they lay eggs, sea turtles often swim thousands of miles to forage and may not come back to their nesting sites for years, Lamont said. Long-term satellite tagging and tracking projects can be a challenge, especially with young turtles, which rapidly shed pieces of their shell (called scutes) as they grow.

“It’s difficult to search for turtles that size in the big ocean,” Ingram said.

Even the seemingly simple questions can be hard to answer: “We have 100 nests. Is this 50 turtles that all laid two nests? Is this 100 turtles?” Lamont said.

That also means problems for policymakers trying to protect sea turtles. Without knowing more about their life cycle, Lamont said, it’s hard to know whether changes — a decline in the number of turtle nests, for instance — is the result of a manmade problem or just natural fluctuation.

“We’ve seen, over time, a decrease in nest numbers and people start to worry, then it jumps back up,” she said.

“Every egg counts.”

Amy Hunter,
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Most of Lamont’s work with sea turtles has been in northwest Florida. But for the CAST program, she and fellow researchers are trying to create a basic assessment of Alabama’s turtle population: where they can be found, how abundant they are and how they utilize the state’s beaches and waters.

“We didn’t know very much about turtles using Alabama waters, so everything is new,” she said.

Ingram said these are gaps in the research “that we know we’ve needed for a long time, but there just wasn’t the funds and the push to get it done.”

Starting in 2019, the CAST research team made several trips to Alabama in the summer and fall to find, catch and tag sea turtles, whether nesting on beaches or in the open water. While they tag the turtles, they also take measurements, collect skin and blood samples and make note of significant injuries or other characteristics.

These data can tell researchers about the general health of the turtle population, especially if they recapture a turtle later. Lamont said the skin and blood samples also hold clues to the turtles’ diets and their genetic background, including the nesting beaches where they were born.

A turtle lays on a bench in the back of a boat. A satellite tracker with antenna has been glued to its shell, and a tag is visible on its right front fin.
A turtle captured as part of the CAST research project, with a satellite tracker attached to its shell. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the 2020 research trips, but Lamont said there were three trips in 2021. The project currently calls for two more years of data collection.

So far, Lamont said the team has caught all three known species of Alabama sea turtles within the state, primarily in Perdido Bay, the bay side of Dauphin Island and near piers all along the coast, including the Gulf State Park Pier. Places with seagrass beds are often hotspots.

“The seagrass is sort of, almost a proxy for where we can find turtles,” she said.

However, the turtles they’ve studied so far don’t always seem to congregate together in Alabama.

“In Alabama, the little bit we’ve done so far, it seems that’s not the case. They’re spread out more, they move more. It makes it a little more challenging to work in that kind of area,” she said.

With the remaining years of the research project, Lamont said she wants to understand more about how sea turtles move around Alabama and the entire Gulf Coast, as well as how they use the beaches, seagrass beds and other habitats.

Then, that data can be used to protect the places where the turtles are, from decreasing boat injuries in Perdido Bay to preserving the seagrasses.

Aside from the research, Alabama’s CAST program is funding a multi-pronged approach to turtle protection. Hunter said that includes $900,000 for the Alabama Coastal Foundation, which has run the Share the Beach volunteer nest protection program since 2018 and also hosts Turtle Fest and other educational programs.

Ingram said the Fish and Wildlife Service is also getting more involved with the Alabama Coastal Foundation’s sea turtle conservation work.

The DCNR’s marine resources department is using Deepwater Horizon funds for more enforcement of federal protections for endangered turtle species, Hunter said. That includes more training for the state’s enforcement officers and surveys to find better approaches to public education on the harms of littering, fishery bycatch and nest vandalism.

“The goal is not to go out and write as many tickets as possible. They’re handing out educational materials,” Hunter said.

Kelly Swindle, a natural resource planner at the Alabama DCNR, said the education portion of the CAST program is in its second year, out of five total, while the conservation portion only has one more year of funding. However, the Alabama Coastal Foundation does fundraisers and other outreach, so projects like Share the Beach will continue even after the settlement funds are spent.

TURTLE TRIAGE

While Deepwater Horizon was a highly visible environmental disaster, many of the daily choices people make can also cause less noticeable harm, one sea turtle at a time.

Plastics and other litter left on the beach can be accidentally ingested by turtles that mistake trash for food. Abandoned fishing lines and nets can cut or entangle turtle fins. Boats also strike sea turtles, injuring or killing them.

“Perdido Bay’s busy, so that’s a big concern, always,” Lamont said.

When turtles with these types of injuries wash up on Alabama’s beaches, they have to be taken out of state for medical care — either to the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, or the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi. But the CAST program is funding construction of a new triage center in Orange Beach.

“We’ve not had a center like this in Alabama before,” Hunter said.

The triage facility will be part of NOAA’s Stranding and Salvage Network for sick and injured sea turtles along the Gulf Coast. When people report injured or dead turtles through state hotlines, organizations that are part of the network respond to collect and, if possible, heal and release the turtles.

According to its website, the Stranding and Salvage Network has responded to more than 50 calls in Alabama in 2021 and about the same number in 2020. There were 81 Alabama calls in 2019, a high for the past five years.

The triage facility will be able to take care of basic injuries and illnesses, without stressing the animals with a long drive, Hunter said. This will also reduce the workload of places like the Gulfarium and Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, allowing them to focus on the most severe cases.

Despite delays due to issues with permitting and construction materials, Swindle said the facility has broken ground on its site near Cotton Bayou, but a completion date hasn’t been set. The City of Orange Beach will help with its operating expenses once the triage center opens.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Alongside CAST’s multi-faceted approach, the Deepwater Horizon settlement is also funding the Restore the Night Sky program, more narrowly focused on a single problem: the importance of darkness.

Sea turtle hatchlings are born with an instinct to head toward the light. When they climb out of their nests on summer nights, Lamont said, the sand dunes are a dark barrier behind them and the moon reflecting on the ocean is a shining beacon in front of them. The newborns take one look and scramble for the waters.

“That’s what they have developed innately,” Lamont said. “… It’s born into them that when they come out, they head into that bright horizon.”

A close-up of a baby sea turtle on a beach. The lower half of its body and its face are still caked with sand from crawling out of the nest.
A green sea turtle hatchling. Photo by Keenan Adams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Today’s beaches have far more light sources than the moon: streetlights, houses, hotels, flashlights and even lit swimming pools can disorient nesting and hatching turtles.

“We have the entire town of Pensacola or Gulf Shores lit up,” Lamont said.

With all these distracting lights, she said turtle hatchlings will crawl in different directions and end up exhausting themselves or getting picked off by predators.

“Every egg counts,” Hunter said.

Programs like Share the Beach bring volunteers out during the hatching season to protect and guide the baby turtles into the water, but they can’t be everywhere and find every nest. Alabama had 99 known nests in 2020 and 114 nests in 2019, Hunter said.

A styrofoam container filled with sand and five baby loggerhead turtles.
Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings collected on Dauphin Island. Photo by Catherine Hibbard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With the help of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Restoring the Night Sky program is conducting light surveys to find bright spots along Alabama’s beaches, including Gulf State Park and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Swindle said.

“Right now, there is a lot of white light,” she said.

The program will try to find and pilot-test turtle-friendly alternatives, then work with municipal governments and individual property owners to replace problem light fixtures. Lights that are an amber color instead of white and are shielded or directed toward the ground are less likely to disorient turtles.

Blackout periods during nesting and hatching seasons are another possibility to reduce light pollution, Swindle said.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park, completed in 2018, already has turtle-friendly lights. Hunter said other park facilities, like its pavilion, need to be retrofitted to match.

“What we’re doing is bringing the pavilion up to the standards of the lodge,” she said.

The Alabama Coastal Foundation also has a program to help beach home and condo owners plan and install fixtures that cause less light pollution.

The completion of the CAST and Restoring the Night Sky projects will help more than just sea turtles recover from Deepwater Horizon, Hunter said.

“When you protect the things that the sea turtles need, when you protect their habitat, … you’ve also protected that habitat for lots of other species — shore birds, in the water, fish. It’s a signal, right, of the health of the overall system,” Hunter said. “… It’s important to do what we can to keep that intact, or at least make it resilient.”

Want to help Alabama’s sea turtles?
“The two most important things any visitor to the beach can do is turn off the lights and don’t leave your beach stuff on the beach at the end of the day,” Amy Hunter said.
Other tips:
• Clean up litter, particularly fishing lines or nets, plastic, Styrofoam and balloons.
• Avoid disturbing turtle nests, which the Share the Beach program marks with signs and monitors with cameras.
• If you see an injured, stranded or dead sea turtle, report it to the Sea Turtle Salvage and Stranding network hotline at 1-866-732-8878.
• Live near the beach? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a comprehensive guide to turtle-friendly lighting and ways to reduce your light pollution.

Main article image by Keenan Adams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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