The Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtle (also know as the Atlantic Ridley) is a small olive green to black looking sea turtles that reaches a maximum size of 58–70 cm (23–28 in) carapace length and weighing only 36–45 kg (79–99 lb).
One of the organizations I do occasional volunteer work for and with which I have a lot of personal familiarity is Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory. This lab is one of the premier suppliers of ocean specimens to scientists around the world. They also do sea turtle rescue. And the sea turtle they most often rescue is juvenile Kemp’s Ridleys. GSML is located in a region famed for blue crabs and juvenile Ridleys eat a lot of crabs. So GSML is Florida’s juvenile Ridley headquarters.
In 2015 GSML joined with The Responsible Pier Initiative. This program is designed to educate fishermen and get juvenile Ridleys that have been accidentally caught on an angler’s hook into proper hook removal, care and then return to the wild. Without such care, getting hooked by a fisherman can be a death sentence. With the Responsible Pier Initiative, GSML had a 600% increase in the numbers of Kemp’s Ridleys they saved going from an average of 3 to 19 in the first year! GSML is a small outfit by turtle rescue standards but they get more Ridleys than any other turtle organization in Florida.
I met my first Kemp’s Ridley at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in 2014. The little guy was a charming fellow named Spot. Spot was lucky. He got sick with pneumonia and was floating about the Gulf, near death, when a fisherman who happened to be passing by in his large boat spotted him. The sharp eyed fisherman netted Spot and took him on board. He called for help and diverted from his planned excursion in order to meet Jack Rudloe at a dock. He transferred Spot to Jack’s care and returned to his fishing. Jack took Spot to Norm Griggs, the vet who treats all the GSML sea turtles (without charge I might add). Spot required antibiotics, time and feeding to recover and he was eventually released ten months later.
2014 was a very bad year for juvenile Kemp’s Ridleys. 1200 of them washed ashore all up and down their range along the Atlantic coast swamping rescue facilities. The turtles were presumed to be suffering from “cold stun” which is what happens when the little fellow end up in colder water than they can function in. It commonly happens in small shallow bays. Low air temperatures in such shallow bays drop the water temperature down to the point that the turtles are stunned. When turtles are cold stunned they are susceptible to infections by a variety of organisms.
In 2014, there were so many sick Ridleys that hundreds had to be transferred to southern rescue aquariums in Florida and Texas. Things at these southern sea turtle rescuers are normally pretty quiet in winter. They are usually busiest in spring and early summer when the turtles migrate back to their nesting grounds. 2014 was not such a year. What made it even worse was the sheer number of turtles that were also very sick and required antibiotic treatment and an extended stay in the rescue facilities for rehabilitation. Cold stunned turtles can develop these secondary infections but normally if you catch them quickly and put them in warm water they can often be released into the wild as soon as it is warm enough.
Fortunately, the 2014/2015 cold stunning event has not happened this year. Unfortunately, we have to assume for every Ridley rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the sea, many many more were not lucky enough to be found by people and those Ridleys simply died. It could be that whatever the 2014 event was, it decimated the Ridley juvenile population. So what was the 2014 event? I am not a turtle biologist but I do have a lot of training in epidemiology. A review of the scientific literature yielded no specific clues. Most authorities seem to think that the cold stunning was just bad luck and the sickness came afterward. Spot, however, was found in Florida waters, not cold stunned but nonetheless very ill. His symptoms matched those of the cold stunned turtles from further north. It is impossible to know for certain, but I suspect the cold stunned turtles of the 2014 event were already ill with the same thing Spot had and the reason they ended up cold stunned was they were too sick to complete their southern migration. This is alarming.
If you measure Ridley population numbers by the numbers of nesting females, it is shocking to see how close these charming creatures came to extinction. Ridleys almost exclusively nest in one place, a 16-mile beach in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The number that nested in 1947 was 89,000. We can take this as a base number for what their numbers should be. In 1978 there were less than 200! A lot of care and effort went into helping them. Their nesting site was protected. Some of the hatchlings were released from the nearby Padre Island in Texas. Baby sea turtles imprint on their birth beach when they dash over the sand to the water and the purpose of releasing them from San Padre was to try to establish a second nesting area. In 1996 there were six nests and that number has slowly increased so that San Padre reached a peak of 209 nests.
If we look at this graph of the Mexican nesting numbers, we can see that until 2010 the turtles were doing very well. If you think of the nesting numbers in mathematical terms, the population had begun to grow very rapidly entering an exponential growth phase starting about 2000. That was very good news for endangered Ridleys. However, you can see the exponential growth stopped and the numbers dropped abruptly in 2010. A lot of adult turtles did not nest after the Deepwater Horizon spill. It looks like about one third of the nesting females did not make it to the beach. We don’t know if they died or if they simply skipped nesting for one year. It looks like they died because if they had just skipped one year then the curve should have returned to its previous upward surge and it hasn’t. And in 2013 there was some other kind of hit. If we imagine what the curve should have been, it was a bad hit affecting about one half of the adult nesting sea turtles. What about 2014? The provisional number of nests is down again to a mere 118 in San Pedro, down from their highest point of 209. Similarly the 2014 numbers for Mexican nesting has dropped from 13,035 to 10,987, a terrifying 16% plunge in a population that was still reeling from the 2010 oil spill. I have not been able to find the numbers for 2015 but I am hoping the news will not be another drop.
So why have nesting numbers dropped so much? Again I don’t know for certain but my educated guess is this. When any population begins to enter the exponential growth curve, that population is in danger from epidemics. The population density reaches a high enough point that a disease can rapidly spread because individuals have a very high probability of encountering one of their own while sick and passing he sickness along. It is an unfortunate side effect of success. So getting back to Spot and his pneumonia I can speculate that 2014 was one of those disease outbreak years. (Which is not to say that this sickness was not a delayed “hit” from some long term effect of the oil spill. It may well have been.) If you add in the hit that the population took in 2010 from the oil spill, it is easy to see how dangerous a string of multiple hits can be on a recovering population. In fact, Dick did a paper on the mathematics of multiple hits on a population and how this can cause extinction back in 1993. The take home message is that all our optimism about Kemp’s Ridleys coming back from the brink of extinction must be tempered with caution. They aren’t there yet!
So what can any one of us do about the situation? As it happens GSML is trying to expand the responsible pier initiative to increase the numbers of Juveniles they can save. But their facilities were bursting with healthy hooked Kemp’s Ridleys last year and they need more rehab space. So you can make a donation that will directly help Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. And if giving to GSML doesn’t suit you, please consider giving to another sea turtle rescue organization. It is we humans who got the Kemp’s Ridleys into their current mess. We can get them out. We just have to decide to do it. You can see the GSML fund raising drive linked below. And I can personally assure you this bunch works largely on volunteer labor and there are no big salaried executives and administrators. Your donations will go directly to help the Kemp’s Ridley (and other sea turtles) back from the brink of extinction.
You can donate here. And Tilt does not deduct a single penny from what GSML gets and if you use your debit card, you aren’t charged anything either. And give or not, please share the message and pass the information on.