Monday, July 19, 2010

Three Months (and 674 Sea Turtles) Later

This week, we will pass the 3-month mark since the oil from the Deepwater Horizon well began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. And while this blog was created to share the work and research being done to learn about San Diego, CA's own local sea turtles, we cannot help but keep in mind our own sea turtle's counterparts who are continuously being affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The reason I, personally, love to study sea turtles is because they rely on the same functioning and health ecosystem that people do. So we know that if our sea turtles are healthy and doing well, then so are we - the people who love to eat sea food and who appreciate that our beaches protect us from large waves and storm surges. (There are MANY more reasons why we, two-footed-land-dwellers, need and rely upon our oceans - but we'll save that for another day!)

Sea turtles, in fact, have been called sentinels of the sea - and can help us better understand the state of the ocean's health.And so, my interest in the sea turtles here in San Diego is directly connected with my interest in the welfare of the regional (San Diego, Southern California, and Baja, Mexico) ecosystem, community and economy. Likewise, the concern of the sea turtles of the Gulf of Mexico is directly linked to the concern for the welfare of the Gulf's ecosystem, community, and economy.

For three months now we've been hearing about the impacts of the oil spilling into the gulf. Like many sadly-common news stories, it is all too easy to just stop listening, put it out of your mind, and move on. Unfortunately, the problems and challenges we just don't want to think about anymore don't go away just because we change the channel on the tv. And so I'll continue to help with these brief updates mixed in with continuing information about San Diego's sea turtles.

Green sea turtle surfacing in the Caribbean (photo by author)

As of Saturday, July 17th, here are the numbers concerning turtles affected by the oil spill. Visit NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration for full details.
  • 674
  • total number of sea turtles verified from April 30 - July 17 within the designated spill area
  • 144 or 21%
  • of the 674, the number of live turtles actively rescued on-water
  • 464 or 69%
  • of the 674; the number of turtles stranded dead
  • 58 or 9%
  • of the 674; the number of turtles stranded alive
  • 4
  • of those 58, the number that subsequently died
  • 187
  • turtles currently in rehabilitation
  • 162
  • total number of turtles stranded or captured that were found with visible external oil
  • 146 or 91%
  • of the oiled turtles, those which are currently alive
And just as mentioned in the other updates, oil is just one factor contributing to the mortality of these turtles. Other threats such as fishing practices contribute to the strandings and deaths reported here; however, the impacts from the oil spill inevitably result in reduced fitness of marinelife, including turtles, such that the animals have a harder time surviving other non-oil-related threats and challenges to survival.

Green sea turtle resting near old fishing gear (photo by author).

And of other news since the last post, 70,000 sea turtle eggs were relocated to the Atlantic coast of Florida, so that the hatchlings - who already have difficult odds (1 in 1,000) of surviving to adulthood - would not become immediately immersed into the oily waters of the Gulf. This plan has been initiated by many local and regional agencies, as well as the federal US Fish & Wildlife and NOAA's Fisheries Services. The relocated nests will be allowed to stay at their original Gulf beaches for as long as possible, so that there is a better chance for the hatchlings to become "imprinted" with their natal beach - that is - they will know what beach to come back to when it is their turn to mate and lay eggs.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center is hosting the transplanted nests, and the entire process is quite unprecedented. Nest-relocation is a common sea turtle conservation practice - but it usually involves moving the nest to another location at the same beach - really never are nests moved to an entirely different beach on a totally different coast.

Time will tell if this was a good choice - but the experts at USFWS and NOAA know that the hatchlings chance of survival if the nests are not moved are incredibly slim, making this action worth the risks in this instance.

To read more on the nest relocation, here is a general information article, the USFWS announcement and FAQs on the rescue mission, and the New England Aquarium rescue staff continues to update their blog on the rescue efforts.

Finally, I recommend viewing the recent "Turtle Talk" hosted by the Audubon Nature Institute to hear more directly from the experts involved in the turtle rescue, rehabilitation, and overall response efforts to the oil spill.

Friday, July 2, 2010

San Diego Hatchlings (from SeaWorld) Moved to Monterey Bay Aquarium

Last October, SeaWorld San Diego discovered that one of their adult female turtles had built a nest and laid eggs when 82 hatchlings emerged one day! Now, nine months later, ten of those hatchlings, now young juveniles, have been moved to the Monterey Bay Aquarium!

Basking sea turtles at SeaWorld San Diego (2009, photo by author)

The turtles on display at SeaWorld, where they have multiple species, is
one of two places for anyone to see sea turtles up close in San Diego, the other being at the Chula Vista Nature Center
- a wonderful place if you've never been!

Green turtle at Chula Vista Nature Center (2008, photo by author)

In the future, I would love to collaborate with SeaWorld to help enhance the entire sea turtle experience (the exhibit and display) - as it currently is a bit small, too close to a ride, and generally under utilized given the overall popularity of sea turtles. The turtle exhibit cannot be found on SeaWorld San Diego's online map, and I was unable to find the turtles on SeaWorld's Exhibit also, which is unfortunate as well - but to find it at the Park, head to the Shipwreck Rapids ride; and they do provide information about sea turtles, however, at their online Animal Infobooks.

Regardless of these facts, this recent move of some SD sea turtles to Monterey Bay is a neat opportunity for sea turtle lovers to now be able to see young turtles at the MB Aq. The small turtles have been placed in the Aquarium's relatively new "Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea" exhibit, which I was lucky enough to visit in May.

Green turtles at Monterey Bay Aquarium (2010, photo by author)

In May, the MB Aq. had two other larger green sea turtles for this Hot Pink Flamingos exhibit (see photos above), but these two are now in a behind the scenes area and are planned to be moved to the large Outer Bay exhibit after renovations this fall, according to an article in the Monterey Herald. That will be a nice change for those two animals, who will also be joined by two more turtles, as they were rapidly outgrowing that particular home.

A final thought on animals in captivity

Having worked at an aquarium for three years, I was often asked the question, "isn't it mean to keep these animals in captivity?" My answer then, just as it would be now is this: if the animals are well cared for by responsible and knowledgeable people, who put the animal's welfare above other matters (i.e. tourist season, class schedules, money...), then no, it is not mean at all. And in fact, when animals in captivity are taken care of, they are most importantly helping protect and conserve their counterparts still in the wild.

Author feeding leopard sharks at the Roundhouse Aquarium, Manhattan Beach, CA
(2003 photo by E. Martin).

By having a few animals in captivity - where the general public can see them, learn about them, and ultimately begin to understand and love them - then people are much more likely to make changes that will help to protect the rest of the animals in the wild. I also believe that the people who are responsible for caring for animals in captivity should be humble enough to know when certain animals should never, or no longer, be in captivity. Pride and arrogance of human-capabilities, or the urge to make a profit can be dangerous. Some animals just need large spaces and resources that no aquarium can provide. Some animals rely heavily on social interactions that cannot be provided for whilst in captivity.

Furthermore, successful reproductive programs in zoos and aquariums have pretty much eliminated the need to collect most animals from the wild. And finally, some animals who have been pushed to the brink of extinction - largely due to human behavior such as hunting or habitat loss - can continue to survive in captivity, with the hope of rebuilding wild populations. So, as long as responsible scientists, veterinarians and aquarists are remembering to put the animal first, then the creatures in captivity can be essential to the survival of the species.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nearly 600 Sea Turtles Verified in Spill Area; Nearly 3/4 of those were stranded dead

The LA Times has a series of photos of the turtle-rescue efforts taking place, the image below is one of those, and is of a Kemp's Ridley turtle emerging from an oil/sargassum patch - who unfortunately evaded the rescuers.

Photo from Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Cole

And continuing our update on San Diego Sea Turtle's relatives in the Gulf of Mexico, as of Sunday, June 27th, here are the numbers concerning turtles affected by the oil spill. Visit NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration for full details.
  • 580
  • total number of sea turtles verified from April 30 - June 27 within the designated spill area
  • 98 or 17%
  • of the 580, the number of live turtles actively rescued on-water
  • 430 or 74%
  • of the 580; the number of turtles stranded dead
  • 45 or 8%
  • of the 580; the number of turtles stranded alive
  • 4
  • of those 45, the number that subsequently died
  • 135
  • turtles currently in rehabilitation
  • 110 or 81%
  • total number of turtles that are in rehabilitation that were captured (98) and stranded (37) alive with visible external oil

Photo from Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Cole

Also noteworthy, a young sperm whale was found dead, 77 miles south of the spill site on June 15th. Like the most common species of sea turtle being found in the spill site (Kemp's Ridley), the sperm whale is an endangered species, and happens to be the only endangered resident cetacean (whale) found in this northern part of the Gulf. According to NOAA's same website, "There are no records of stranded whales in the Gulf of Mexico for the month of June for the period 2003-2007." Tissue samples taken from the 25-foot deceased sperm whale will be analyzed to try and determine cause of death and possible impact from oil.

Another cetacean impacted are dolphins. As of June 27th, 55 dolphins have been verified in the designated spill area, and all but 2 were already dead or subsequently died (96%).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Some Early Steps in the Removal of the South Bay Power Plant

The South Bay Power Plant looms over the south San Diego Bay's wetlands - Photo by author

An early step in the long-coming process of removing the South Bay Power Plant (SBPP) from the south San Diego Bay occurred today when "SDG&E filed for approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to relocate the company's existing South Bay substation in Chula Vista to a site south of the South Bay Power Plant to open up public access to the waterfront".

This is one of many regulatory and proceedural steps needed before the SBPP is shutdown and removed from the edge of our San Diego sea turtle's home. The California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) still needs to remove the "must run status" of the plant before it can be completely shut down, and full environmental reviews, development plans and permits are still to follow this action - but it is one step closer to the changes we knew have been coming for a long time.

So all of you out there who enjoy our sea turtles, birds, fish and other wonderful wildlife who share our great natural resource, the San Diego Bay, keep paying attention to this process and make sure your voice is heard.

The Port of San Diego and the City of Chula Vista in particular will be working hard to coordinate plans to convert the land now occupied by the SBPP to something new and different. And through the participation of citizens, scientist, and policy makers - we have the potential to create a well preserved bayfront environment; which also provides learning and earning opportunity for San Diego's residents and visitors.

There is a spectrum of impact that development can have on the environment and the natural resources (including the turtles). Likewise, there is a spectrum of value - both traditional economic value as well as non-tradition inherent, personal, and enjoyment value - which differing types of development can generate. My hope is that a creative development plan can maximize both the economic and inherent value of the South Bay. For example, a rejuvenated area with shops, restaurants, homes and even hotels could be set off of the bay. While open space, parks, natural wetlands, observation decks, kayak launch/rental, and trails allow residents and visitors alike the chance to enjoy the beautiful coastal ecosystems of the South Bay.

The South Bay Power Plant and the site of our makeshift field research
station during sea turtle monitoring days - Photo by author

I can visualize school groups learning about wetlands and birds, while watching the mullet leap from the water as they scan to see those turtles pop up for a breath of air. Bird-watching enthusiasts could stroll along the wetland edges, taking in the many migration and residential species found in the South Bay; while only having a short 5 minute walk before they take a seat and enjoy a cut of coffee at a small cafe. Giant sea turtles, one of the most charismatic creatures in the ocean, will continue to visit and feed in the South Bay. Jobs can be created, amazing educational experiences can be had, a new recreation opportunity will be accessible; all through smart planning for the upcoming development.

Economic value can coincide with environmental conservation. The two are in no way mutually exclusive. This is our wonderful backyard, this is our wonderful opportunity. Let's continue to be involved in the process, make our opinions and desires heard, and support our leaders and representatives making these decisions about the future of the South Bay.

See the full press release article from SDG&E about this early step here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Continued Impacts of the Oil Spill on the Gulf's Turtles

Just a brief update on the sea turtles in the Gulf, as we enter the 8th week of spill impact. From NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration, as of June 13th:
  • 411
  • total number of sea turtles verified from April 30 - June 13 within the designated spill area
  • 48 or 12%
  • of the 411; the number of turtles actively rescued on-water
  • 3 and 3
  • of the 48; the number found dead, and the number that later died
  • 363 or 88%
  • of the 411; the number of turtles that have stranded
  • 330 or 91%
  • of the 363; the number of turtles stranded dead
  • 33 or 7%
  • of the 363; the number of turtles stranded alive
  • 4
  • of those 33, the number that subsequently died
  • 57
  • total number of captured (42 live, 3 dead, 3 later died) and stranded (5 live, 4 dead) turtles found with visible external oil
  • 67
  • turtles currently in rehabilitation

Dolphins are another marine megafauna affected by the spill and the impact is also being tracked by NOAA's ORR. As of June 13th, a total of 41 dead dolphins have been found. 39 were found dead, one later died at the beach, and the other was euthanized.

Marine turtles and dolphins share similarities which put them at risk for similar impacts concerning this oil spill:
  • Use coastal areas and the Gulf to feed
  • They will likely ingest oil and associated toxins mixed into the water, as well as tarballs
  • According to NOAA's "Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning and Response"guide, tar balls in the gut may cause blockage leading to starvation, inadequate nutrition absorption, absorbed toxins, intenstinal blockage, trouble utilizing energy (fat) resources, and bouyancy problems caused by internal gas buildup - making feeding and predator/boat avoidance difficult.
  • They breath air at the ocean's surface
  • This exposes the marine animals to surface oil entering the body, as well as the potential inhalation of the petroleum fumes
  • They live in the water all* the time (*the exception of course being nesting females on the beach)
  • And unless they can actively avoid the spill-impacted area, they have no choice but to remain in the oil-contaminated water. Continued exposure to the oil and all its associated chemicals and compounds will likely cause physiological and biological impacts (i.e. sloughing of exposed skin, leading to parasite and disease risks; limited food in-take; organ dysfunction; hormone imbalance; abnormal development; changes in blood chemistry; difficulty with salt excretion)
Photo by author: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in rehabilitation at
Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Florida (2004).

Other serious impacts to marine turtles are also shared with coastal wildlife rather than dolphins, and affects the breeding, nesting, and hatching turtles. As outlined in Chapter 4 of the same NOAA guide, potential impacts include:
  • Interference with breeding behavior and location of breeding/nesting sites
  • The oil may affect breeding success and put males as well as females at risk if they aggregate closer to shore than they would otherwise while feeding or migrating
  • The oil may disrupt environmental cues that are thought to guide breeding and nesting turtles to the nesting and breeding sites (i.e. masking olfactory cues)
  • Reduced food supply
  • This includes the kill-off and/or contamination of fish and invertebrates, as well as damaged seagrass beds, and reefs, especially as the oil begins to wash ashore and congeals
  • Reduce nesting and hatchling succes
  • Nesting females:
  • Oil and tarballs washed ashore may deter or impede nesting females from successfully nesting
  • They may not emerge at all
  • They may not be able to dig a body pit/nest cavity
  • They will put themselves into direct contact with the oil
  • They may become entangled in oil-contaminated debris and beach wrack
  • The eggs may be buried with oil-contaminated sand
  • All of these impacts threaten the long-term turtle population levels
  • Eggs:
  • The eggs/hatchlings are at high risk for decreased survival and increased deformities when exposed to "freshly" spilled oil (i.e. the oil spill occurs during nesting season; as opposed to heavily weathered oil)
  • Nests could become smothered in oil/tarballs, which would prevent the exchange of air (oxygen and carbon dioxide) as well as inhibiting the proper amount of moisture within the nest
  • The nest temperature may be increased due to the darker color of the oil-contaminated sand - and because male/female ratio of hatchlings in a nest is determined by nest-temperature; oil on the nest or in the sand would raise the nest temperature, creating more females and fewer males
  • All of these impacts threaten the long-term turtle population levels
  • Hatchlings:
  • Oil on the beach could trap, entangle, contaminate/poision emerging hatchlings
  • Once in the water, hatchlings are moved by currents, gathering them with other floating objects - which usually includes seaweed and food - but now also includes oil
  • Hatchlings do not dive the way older turtles do, instead they spend much more time at the surface, exposing them to aggregated oil and the fumes
  • Hatchlings and juvenile turtles are often thought to be indiscriminate foragers, which means they eat what they find - which now includes oil and tarballs
  • All of these impacts threaten the long-term turtle population levels
Sea turtles are long-lived creatures, which have navigated the oceans for hundreds of millions of years. The list of threats sea turtles encounter throughout their lives is long; and this horrible human-error is just one more giant black mark we have made on their (and our!) environment.

Feel sad, yes. Feel mad, yes. Help, yes.
But most of all - look at the way you live your life.

What choices do you make everyday that are related to this human impact?
What could you do differently to make that impact just a little bit smaller?

(Need a few ideas to get started - check out this article from sea turtle researcher, Wallace J. Nichols, written on World Ocean Day and Jacques Cousteau's 100th birthday, "What Would Jacques Do? One Hundred Years of Oil")

Good. Now do it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Updated! California Sea Turtle Crossed the Pacific

Our first turtle of the 2009-2010 monitoring season was equipped with a satellite GPS tag on November 5th, 2009. Anyone who was interested in following this turtle, named Bonita, could sign up on to receive updates by email as Bonita continued on her journey. After spending at least a few months (see Nov-Jan tracks) in the San Diego Bay, Bonita's tag was removed and used to follow another sea turtle.

Bonita's tag had been placed on a leatherback sea turtle!

On April 15th I received an email showing that this new turtle wasn't in California's waters anymore! And three subsequent emails, the latest one coming just this morning, shows that the leatherback has traveled over 6,700 miles (10,819 km), crossing the entire Pacific ocean, and is currently north of Papua New Guinea! This tag has been transmitting information for over 200 days. This preliminary information - posted earlier this week - was at first thought to be on a green sea turtle - which didn't really make a whole lot of sense! - because this type of migration is not part of their life cycle. So, it has now been confirmed by researchers in charge of this project - that the tag was placed on a leatherback sea turtle - who now appears to be nesting in Jamursba Medi, in West Papua.

In San Diego, we have green sea turtles in the Bay, but other species of sea turtles found off California's coast travel great distances and even cross the Pacific. Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) tagged off of California's central coast have been tracked all the way to the South Pacific where they nest in Papua, Indonesia. And some loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) feed on pelagic crabs off of Baja, Mexico and nest thousands of miles away in Japan.

Sources and additional information:

Bonita's/ NOW LEATHERBACK Tracking page at

2004 Green Turtle Assessment

Recovery Plan (1998) - East Pacific Green Turtle

Recovery Plan (1998) - Pacific Green Turtle

Loggerheads and fishery interaction in the East Pacific

Leatherback tracking

San Diego Bay Research - NOAA SWFSC

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sea Turtle Rescue Efforts Continue

According to NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (ORR), an additional 47 sea turtles were verified within the designated spill area in the last week (see June 1 post for May 31 summary totals).

NOAA's Facebook page has posted some photos (shown above and below) of the driftlines being searched for turtles as well as a couple of the juvenile turtles that were rescued during the efforts taking place 20-40 miles offshore. (Photo: from NOAA Facebook - courtesy of Georgia Dept. Natural Resources, showing senior biologist searching for turtles within the oilfilled Sargassum driftline. )

Yet according to a June 4 blog post by Dr. Charles Innis of the New England Aquarium who is in Louisiana helping with the efforts, no new turtles were brought into the local rehabilitation center, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (AOA) between June 1-4 (and presumably the 5th as well) due to the bad weather in the Gulf. But on Sunday, June 6, at-sea efforts resumed, and five more turtles were captured, all but one were still alive and are now in rehabilitation.

Here are the updated numbers from NOAA's ORR as of June 6th:
  • 47
  • the number of additional turtle's verified within the designated spill area in the last week
  • 300
  • total number of sea turtles verified from April 30 - June 6 within the designated spill area
  • 248 or 83%
  • total number of turtles stranded dead
  • 22 or 7%
  • total number of turtles stranded alive
  • 3
  • of those 22, the number that subsequently died
  • 30 or 10%
  • total number of turtles captured during on-water rescue efforts by NOAA, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and other trained partners.
  • 25
  • of the 30 rescued turtles, the number in rehabilitation at Audubon Aquarium
  • 2:3
  • the number captured that were already dead; and the number which later died
  • 35
  • of the stranded (5) and captured turtles (30) with visible external evidence of oil
  • 4:1
  • the number stranded alive: the number stranded dead
  • 2
  • number of the 4 stranded alive that were caught during skimming operations
  • 41
  • turtles in rehabilitation
Many different groups have pitched in to help with the turtle-specific rescue efforts, including veterinarians from the NEA who are putting updates (when they get a break) on their own rescue blog. Check it out to see more photos and hear details about the work being done once rescued turtles are brought to shore at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.
(Photo: from NOAA's Facebook page - courtesy of NOAA & Georgia DNR, showing NOAA veterinarian cleaning a recently rescued juvenile Kemp's Ridley.)

Once at the AOA, the turtles are examined, cleaned, and treated. In addition to the NEA blog with great photos and first hand accounts of the efforts, The Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program (LMMSTRP) is another one of the many partners helping in this effort, and have posted additional photos of the cleaning process on Flickr.

Weather reports of continuing southwesterly winds indicate that the oil slick is expected to continue moving north towards Louisiana as well as the Mississippi and Alabama barrier islands, and east toward the Florida Panhandle.

The next post will focus on another common theme of this San Diego Sea Turtle blog, and that is on the economic value of marine life and the ocean's resources.

Until then, the best sign off again seems to be with a big "Thank You!" to all the people helping with the rescue and cleanup efforts; and positive thoughts for the gushing to stop.
Photo: by CTT's hubby, Green turtle in St. Thomas

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill and Sea Turtles

The green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) that are found in San Diego Bay are of part of the Pacific population which is listed as endangered and is therefore protected and closely managed. Similarly, other species and populations of sea turtles found along U.S. coasts and in U.S. waters are protected and closely monitored; all five species of sea turtles found within U.S. waters are listed as either endangered or threatened. All five of these species are found within the Gulf of Mexico.

  1. Green (Chelonia mydas) - Breeding populations in Florida & Mexico's Pacific coast (includes San Diego's turtles) = Endangered; all other populations, Hawaii, = Threatened
  2. Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) - Threatened
  3. Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) - Endangered
  4. Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) - Endangered
  5. Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata ) - Endangered

A sixth species, the Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) is found along the Pacific coast - usually Mexico and south. The seventh species of sea turtles, the Australian Flatback (Natador depressus), is only found in waters near Australia and Papua New Guinea. (photo by C Turner T, Green turtle near St. Thomas)

According to NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration, as of May 31st:

  • 253
  • total number of sea turtles verified from April 30 to May 31 within the designated spill area
  • 228 or 90%
  • total number of turtles stranded dead
  • 15
  • number of turtles stranded alive
  • 3
  • of those 15, the number that subsequently died
  • 7
  • number of turtles captured May 31 "alive and very oiled" (6 Kemp's ridleys, 1 green; all pelagic-stage juveniles) by a "directed search efforts from a search vessel that included NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission staff and other partners"
  • 40 mi
  • distance offshore the NOAA+partners team was that captured the above mentioned 7 turtles
  • 12 and 1
  • of the 253 turtles verified within the spill area, the number of alive (12) and dead (1) turtles collected with "visible external evidence of oil. All others have not had visible evidence of external oil."
  • 21
  • turtles in rehabilitation

The summary report also states that, "turtle strandings during this time period have been higher in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama than in previous years for this same time period. This may be due in part to increased detection and reporting, but this does not fully account for the increase." Even without the oil spill, the turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, like all ocean waters, are subject to many threats which cause mortalities every year. These threats include entanglement (in active and abandoned fishing gear, as well as debris/pollution), fishery bycatch, natural predation (i.e. sharks) and poaching, cold-stun/hypothermia during cold snaps, diseases and parasite-related infections, and habitat loss (includes nesting beaches and foraging grounds such as seagrass beds and coral reefs).

My advisor from NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center has even joined in the efforts to rescue some of these turtles, off the Louisiana coast, from some of the many oil driftlines.

Driftlines are usually made up of floating alga - usually Sargassum - and other floating debris that are brought together from currents and wind into these convergence zones. Juvenile turtles, especially, use these floating patches to rest in, feed in, and avoid predators. However, the oil which is being clumped together at the surface is also becoming collected in these driftlines. (photo: loggerhead hatchlings in Sargassum)
NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration's "Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning, and Response" guide describes oil-spill associated risks to turtles as follows:

  • Although surprisingly robust when faced with physical damage (shark attacks, boatstrikes), sea turtles are highly sensitive to chemical insults such as oil.
  • Areas of oil and gas exploration, transportation, and processing often overlap with important sea turtle habitats.
  • Sea turtles are vulnerable to the effects of oil at all life stages—eggs, post-hatchlings, juveniles, and adults in nearshore waters.
  • Several aspects of sea turtle biology and behavior place them at particular risk, including a lack of avoidance behavior, indiscriminate feeding in convergence zones, and large predive inhalations.
  • Oil effects on turtles include increased egg mortality and developmental defects, direct mortality due to oiling in hatchlings, juveniles, and adults; and negative impacts to the skin, blood, digestive and immune systems, and salt glands.
(From page 35)

Clearly this blog is specifically focused on sea turtles, yet the reason I personally am dedicated to studying these long-lived, migratory, charismatic animals is because they are excellent sentinels to the overall ocean health. Through studying the well-being of turtles and their habitats, we also learn a great deal about several ocean ecosystems, marinelife, and even our own coastal safety, homes/businesses and economy.

These are just some initial details and information about the current disaster and its impact on marine turtles... more to come. Until then - here's to keeping our fingers crossed that the spewing stops soon; and here are many thanks to those folks who are out there helping to protect and rescue the marine and coastal resources that are oh-so-important and wonderful.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

New California Legislation: Power plants, marinelife, and us

If you've followed this blog over the last year, then you know it is focused on a group of marine turtles from the Eastern Pacific green turtle (Chelonia mydas) population that aggregate near the South Bay Power Plant in the south San Diego Bay. My work for my Master's at SIO, was just a small part of the research NOAA scientists have conducted for over 20 years at this site. And the aspect of work I've looked at has to do with the fact that these endangered turtles spend much of their time in and near the warm-water discharge channel of the South Bay Power Plant (SBPP), a 50-year old energy plant which uses technology called once-through-cooling (OTC).

The SBPP has been generating less energy in recent years, and this means the amount of warmed water discharged by the OTC plant has been decreasing. You can explore the rest of the blog to learn more about this impact; but given that the population of turtles is remaining steady (about 60 in the San Diego Bay), and that they are in good health, researchers believe the turtles will be just fine once the plant closes completely. We anticipate that the turtles will adjust their location throughout the bay to remain in habitats that are favorable (i.e. the right water temperature range, eelgrass and other food to eat). In fact, early signs of these shifts in distribution were observed in the research I've done as exhibited in the decreased catchability within the discharge channel; and additional research by NOAA scientists and students at SDSU has begun this year to further study these changes.

OTC energy generating facilities are located near a body of water, there are 19 along California's coast. Plants using this type of technology pull in water from the nearby ocean or bay which is then used to cool the steam created by the energy generation process and that water, now warmed, is discharged back into the ocean or bay. Marine life and ecosystems can be affected by organisms being pulled into the OTC plant (entrainment and impingement), as well as changes to the ecosystem caused by the artificially warmer water being discharged. New technology such as dry-cooling (uses air vs. water) and closed loop cooling (reuses water vs. pull in and then discharge) is now common place among newer energy plants and do not have the same impacts on marine habitats.

For sometime now, policymakers in California and other parts of the US have considered legislation that would eventually eliminate the use of such OTC technology. The primary reason for requiring this change in technology is to comply with "best available" standards that guide much environmental regulation - this is often referred to as "best technology available, or BTA". What this means is that new, wide spread technology now exists which is more efficient that older technology and has a less negative impact on the environment and natural resources.

Logically, then, power plants that use OTC should either be upgraded to use the newer and less damaging technology, or they should be shut down completely, and newer, cleaner energy generation facilities should be built and brought on-line.

And this is what California's State Water Resources Control Board ruled on last week.

"The intent of this Policy is to ensure that the beneficial uses of the State’s coastal
and estuarine waters are protected while also ensuring that the electrical power
needs essential for the welfare of the citizens of the State are met. The State
Water Board recognizes it is necessary to develop replacement infrastructure to
maintain electric reliability in order to implement this Policy and in developing this
policy considered costs, including costs of compliance, consistent with state and
federal law." (May 4, 2010, OTC Policy)

The one other key factor that will have to be considered prior to the SBPP and other OTC plants being shut down is that the energy these operating plants generate, is used by us, the citizens of California. And if you recall the "energy crisis" of 2001, you know that reliable energy supply is essential to our lives and economy. Before these plants are shut down completely, a new source of energy (e.g. a new/different power plant), must be online and capable of providing the energy demand currently being met by the OTC plant. In the case of the SBPP, energy regulators have said that the creation of the Sunrise powerlink or a similar transmission line could bring power generated at inland solar/wind power plants to the coastal San Diego community. Alternatively, other power plant(s) may be constructed in south San Diego to fulfill the energy demand that currently exists.

Regardless, closing the power plant prior to having an energy source online and identified would be extremely disruptive to our lives in San Diego.

This OTC technology, created in the 1950s, is clearly no longer the "best available" and so energy decision makers must address this fact and update their plants accordingly, which may mean in some cases that plants are shut down.

The new policy now mandates these changes take place and forces energy companies to make changes that are overdue. These changes will cost money, which is the largest complaint of the energy companies (and these costs, of course, will be passed on to us, the consumers); however the newer technology is also more efficient, which means in the long run, it is a smart business move for the energy companies too, and it will also begin addressing much needed changes in reducing carbon emissions to curb climate change.

Additional information:

Regional Water Quality Control Board May 4, 2010 Ruling

California Rules Restrict Power Plants' Marine Water Use

California okays coastal power plant modifications

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Tracks of A Sea Turtle in San Diego

Yesterday we were able to continue our successful run for the 2009-2010 San Diego Bay monitoring season, with two more turtles making an appearance. The first turtle who visited us was actually the very first one we found this season, "Bonita." The second turtle of the day was a brand new recruit (more on this juvenile to come in another post)!

Bonita was equipped with a satellite tag on November 5th, and she's been leaving her tracks since then. NOAA researchers have posted her path from the last two months on the wonderful sea turtle website (fresh with a new look!), See her tracks throughout the southern section of the San Diego Bay, covering 91km since November.

Researchers recovered the GPS tag and will be able to download the full data collected from this high-tech piece of equipment. The tag, a Wildlife Computers MK10-AF Argos-linked GPS transmitter, records not only the turtle's position, but other information about the animal's habitat as well, such as water temperature and depth.

Yesterday I was also able to meet the two new students affiliated with San Diego State University who will be continuing work very similar to the project I did for my Capstone project while at UCSD's SIO last year. In the coming years, and with support from the Port of San Diego, they will work with NOAA researchers and follow the localized movements of the turtles in the San Diego Bay and gather more detailed information about the water temperature and other factors affecting the turtles and their habitat. And with new developments regarding the life span of the South Bay Power Plant being made nearly every month, these findings on the turtle's habitat use will be useful to state and local regulators, power plant operators, and marine scientists alike.

(Photo: You don't usually see green sea turtle tracks on beaches of San Diego! These tracks were left by one of the green turtles as it was released back into the San Diego Bay after being weighed, measured and tagged.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Good Start to the New Year!

(Photo: NMFS Permit # 1591)

So far, a total of eight (8) turtles have been caught this season while monitoring at the South Bay! Having been out only four times, NOAA scientists are averaging two turtles for every monitoring field day. Not a bad start to the season!

Tomorrow, we'll be out again and are hoping to continue this great trend in 2010. We'll be joined by some more local students as well.

For a number of years now, NOAA researchers, in partnership with Pro Peninsula (now part of the Ocean Foundation) and the Port of San Diego, have provided a select handful of students the chance to see science in action. On-site experiences start before the classes actually visit the field research station. This prep work provides students with background information through activities, classroom visits by researchers, and even visits to the Chula Vista Nature Center to see green turtles up close.

These experiences help the students to make the most of the time they actually spend on-site. At the South Bay, students help spot turtles resting in the "jacuzzi", witness the weighing, measuring and tagging of all the turtles found that day, and get the chance to ask the scientists about thier jobs, school experiences, and neat questions like "what does the nose of a sea turtle feel like?"

Because this research takes place at the power plant where access is limited, and combined with the fact that these turtles being studied are endangered, the number of people allowed to witness this amazing experience is very limited. The few classrooms able to participate in this moving and hands-on experience are extremely grateful for the funding support received from the Port and other sources, and for the researchers and staff who volunteer their time to enhancing this educational experience.

I know I am looking forward to seeing another group of excited San Diego students out in the field tomorrow- because I remember being a kid, seeing sea turtle researchers up close and personal, and thinking, "I wonder if I could do that one day, when I grow up...?"