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07.14.10

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The Ridleys' Riddle

Is BP destroying the evidence by burning the turtles?

By Juliane Poirier


The smallest sea turtle in the world is the olive-green Kemp's Ridley, an underdog of the undersea. Not only is it rare, endangered and overshadowed in size by other sea turtles, Kemp's Ridleys have one hell of a time reproducing because their eggs, easily nabbed from nests in the sand, are eaten or sold on the black market. Turtle-egg thievery is so prevalent on certain Mexican beaches that the nests have to be guarded to ensure that some hatchlings might carry on the species, since it takes about half a decade for the animal to reach breeding age.

But that's not all the turtle has to worry about. The cookie-sized hatchlings undergo a dangerous ordeal at birth, as the newborns struggle to get from shell to shoreline without being snatched by natural predators. More obstacles await them in the ocean, and few Kemp's Ridleys survive to adulthood. Yet the trials of this turtle seem to strike a universal chord in the human psyche, inspiring fans to cheer it across the beach—as hundreds do during breeding season—and to share its triumph when it reaches the water.

Evidently, BP is not among those fans. The Kemp's Ridley is suffering from BP's oil gush disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and reportedly being burned alive in pockets of oil torched in controlled burns out at sea. Oil floating in the water surface is corralled with floating barriers and set afire to get it off the water. But biologists working in the Gulf say the oil burnings are taking place along concentrations of seaweed where the turtles feed, and that BP has ordered no turtle surveys and allowed no rescues prior to the burns.

In a Miami Herald interview in late June, Turtle Island Restoration Network director Todd Steiner explained that burn areas are likely to include high concentrations of sea turtles because "the same currents and winds that steer seaweed, fish and sea turtles through the Gulf also act on the slick, pushing poisonous oil into the same place where sea life gathers. Rescue crews pulling turtles out had watched crews burn the same drifting weed lines, which can stretch for miles, where they had been finding turtles." Steiner added, "It's not a theory. That's where they are. We know this."

But BP is predictably ignoring the turtle and the complaints by playing the "prove it" card. In the same Miami Herald report, BP spokesman Toby Odone said, "It's not absolutely clear if there is a risk to turtles." (Note: spokespeople get paid a lot for sentences like that.) Meanwhile the burnings continue. Environmental groups are planning to sue, but how many turtles might be burned alive before BP can be stopped?

The little Kemp's Ridley has been on the endangered list since 1970, when an estimated original breeding population of over 40,000 dropped to less than 800. Biologists and turtle advocates who have been working to restore the species to a sustainable number are aghast at what BP is doing. It has been suggested that because killing an animal on the endangered species list can result in fines up to $50,000 per animal that BP might be purposely destroying the evidence by burning the turtles.

The fate of the Kemp's Ridley is now the fate of every organism living in drilling areas, because oil is getting harder to obtain and therefore being drilled in more dangerous ways. Professor Michael Klare, in a June 30 interview with NPR, claims that BP's oil gush disaster is part of a dangerous new era he calls the age of "tough oil," in which drilling is deeper, riskier and done in increasingly unstable environments. Because of the extremes to which oil companies are going for oil, Klare claims we can take the Gulf oil disaster and multiply by a factor of 10 what will occur as a result of aggressive oil drilling. "More such disasters," Klare declared simply, "are inevitable."

One aggressive drilling operation will take place on an artificial island BP is now constructing the Beaufort Sea, where whales have their mating grounds. Will BP's next gusher include the burning of whales?


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