Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles Scramble to the Sea

Ever think the closest you might get to seeing a baby sea turtle would be watching Finding Nemo?  Well, during the summer in South Texas, hatchling releases at Padre Island National Seashore allow visitors to watch the sea turtle hatchlings crawl across the sand, catch their first wave and head out into the big blue.

I recently attended a release and was able to experience first-hand how something as simple as watching a baby turtle travel across of 20 feet of sand and seaweed can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A Kemp's ridley hatchling crawls towards the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: National Park Service
A Kemp’s ridley hatchling makes its way towards the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: National Park Service
All five species of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico are endangered. The most endangered, and the smallest, is the Kemp’s ridley sea turtleTheir hatchlings, which are just 1.5 inches long and weigh only half an ounce, make up the majority of turtles released at Padre Island National Seashore.

The Kemp’s ridley hatchling releases are just one part of a long-term success story. Historically low numbers of Kemp’s ridley turtles in Texas and Mexico in the 1970s prompted an international effort to assist in the recovery of the species.  Collecting turtle eggs for food was banned and efforts were made to reduce the numbers of turtles drowned in fishing nets. These recovery efforts included relocating hatchlings from Mexico to Texas, where they were allowed to imprint on the remote barrier island beaches of the Padre Island National Seashore. All these efforts seem to have made a difference, as the number of nests documented on the Texas coast has increased from just six in 1996 to 209 in 2012.

While clearly on the road to recovery, the Kemp’s ridley still is a long way from to returning to population levels that would lead to removal from the Endangered Species List.

Adult Kemp’s ridleys in the northern Gulf of Mexico prefer waters off the coast of Louisiana, and many turtles were found oiled in this region during 2010. Scientists are trying to understand the impacts of the oil still lingering in the region and sea turtles in this area are still being found dead in very high numbers. NOAA is investigating but information about the cause of these deaths has not been publicly released.

Sea turtle hatchling release at Padre Island National Seashore, Photo: National Park Service
Hatchling release at Padre Island National Seashore draws a crowd. Photo: National Park Service
In addition, discoveries made during the oil spill response efforts indicate that shrimpers often fail to place turtle excluder devices in their fishing nets or install them properly, causing turtles to drown.

A recent report from Datu Research points to the significant contributions wildlife tourism—such those who travel to South Texas to view sea turtle hatchling releases—on local economies.

In Texas alone, more than 7.7 million wildlife tourists visit the state each year, generating nearly $800 million in tax revenue.

In the end, protecting and enhancing habitat for this truly charismatic marine species will benefit coastal economies as well.

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