A loggerhead turtle.The Gulf spill threatens loggerhead turtles, who are nesting along the Florida coast right now.Photo courtesy Crazy Creatures via FlickrSea Turtle Conservancy Director David Godfrey took a minute to update me on what is being done to safeguard sea turtles swimming and nesting along Gulf shores this summer. He described transporting 70,000 loggerhead turtle eggs, turtles being burned alive, and what people can do to help.

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Q. David, how true are the reports of sea turtles being burned alive in the Gulf?

A. Yes, sea turtles rounded up by oil skimmers were burned alive by contractors working for BP. There were not enough wildlife monitors out at sea with the skimmers to adequately inspect these large pools of oil before they are set ablaze, and we spoke with colleagues and our attorneys about the possibility of filing an immediate Endangered Species Act takings case against BP seeking an injunction. Almost immediately, we began hearing directly from senior officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who were equally upset about this issue. They assured us that wildlife observers would be added to the process and allowed to inspect these pools before they are lit. We have been watching the issue closely and so far it appears that the new observers are eliminating this from happening, but will respond with legal action if we are not convinced that new protocols are being followed.

Q. What’s the plan for all of the hatchlings due to emerge on Gulf beaches soon?

A. Of immediate concern is the fate of hundreds of sea turtle nests that are being deposited right now by nesting loggerhead turtles along the north Gulf coast of Florida. Under normal circumstances, hatchlings from this coast would begin emerging from their nests after incubating for about 60 days and immediately swim out into the Gulf in search of floating mats of sargassum seaweed, where they find shelter and food for the first few years of life. Unfortunately, oil from the spill is accumulating in the same areas where the hatchlings would be heading. Conditions are so bad that there is very little chance any of this year’s hatchlings in the Panhandle would survive.

In response, federal and state officials (with input and assistance from the Sea Turtle Conservancy) have made a bold decision to relocate all of the nests from this part of the Gulf Coast to an incubation facility set up at the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast. The idea is to release the hatchlings into the Atlantic, where they have a far greater chance of surviving.

About 700 nests are laid by turtles in this region each summer. Considering there are about 100 eggs in each nest, this adds up to an estimated 70,000 eggs that will be need to be carefully excavated, stored in special containers and transported to the east coast. As the hatchlings emerge inside their containers, they will be allowed to crawl down the beach and into the sea at a variety of locations on the east coast.

The operation is being coordinated by staff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are being assisted by a well-trained network of local sea turtle monitors from the Panhandle, as well as the Sea Turtle Conservancy and other contractors with years of experience working with sea turtles in Florida.

Each nest will be allowed to incubate in place until about the 50-day point, and then they will be carefully excavated and placed in specialized incubation containers. It is particularly encouraging that FedEx has stepped up to provide their expertise in shipping sensitive cargo in order to transport all of the eggs to the incubation site at the Space Center in their climate-controlled trucks. The transfer process will continue for two or more months as all of the nests gradually reach the 50-day mark.

Q. Has such a thing ever been done before?

A. Never. And we don’t know exactly where they will return, but the hope is that by incubating on their natal (west coast) beach for 50 days, they will still imprint to return there.

Q. What can people do? Volunteer?

A. There is very little opportunity for anyone but experienced sea turtle experts and state-permitted turtle monitors already working in Florida to assist with the relocation strategy or the recovery of oil-impacted turtles. The whole effort is coordinated by the Central Command, and looks very much like a military operation. Our organization is permitted in Florida to handle turtles and we have close ties with many of the agency staff coordinating the plan. Unfortunately, we are not able to involve additional volunteers.

We are not receiving money directly from BP and we are hoping to remain involved in the relocation plan without operating under contract to any of the Central Command agencies or BP — we feel it is important to maintain a strong level of independence so we can comment and openly object when we see things that are not being done properly or for the greater benefit of sea turtles. So donations to STC would certainly be helpful to support this huge effort, and can be sent via our site.

Q. Does the Sea Turtle Conservancy have a plan for mitigating the long-term effects of the BP disaster on turtles?

A. We have formulated a plan to begin mitigating for the impacts of the oil spill on sea turtles. Because the oil disaster is still unfolding, the first phase of the plan is to eliminate as many other causes of sea turtle mortality as possible. Of course, the damage caused by the spill can never be undone, but BP and other entities are looking to contribute immediately to sea turtle conservation in other ways.

Our plan was accepted by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is handling some of the money being earmarked to begin addressing environmental impacts.

So we are leading a major effort to identify and fix problem lights all around Florida that have been disorienting hatchlings. In the past, we could only ask homeowners and businesses to fix their lights. Now, we will actually design a lighting fix and pay for the installation. Next, we will conduct a major initiative to expand the capacity of every sea turtle rehabilitation facility in Florida to care for more turtles and give them the best veterinary care possible. We will provide for new turtle storage tanks, state-of-the-art surgical and medical equipment, medicines, and supplies. There are several other aspects to the plan, including significant public outreach activities, predator control measures, and even dune restoration in areas impacted by recent erosion.

Check the Sea Turtle Conservancy blog for more in-depth information and stats on the number of turtles impacted by the oil spill so far. STC has been a member of the Orion Grassroots Network since 2004.