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A protective shell

Turtles rescued from the Cape remain safe at the aquarium while officials keep an eye on oil spill in Gulf, their eventual home

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 24, 2010

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They were the unlucky ones: close to 200 critically endangered and frozen Kemp’s ridley turtles plucked from Cape Cod beaches by volunteers last winter. Most died, but more than two dozen have spent months recovering from pneumonia and other complications in marine intensive care units around the Northeast.

Now those Kemp’s ridley survivors just may be the most fortunate of their species. The unfolding Gulf of Mexico oil leak is on track to deeply pollute estuaries and coastal bays where Kemp’s ridleys live. Two turtles have been found covered with oil and are being treated now in Louisiana, and environmental officials expect more in the weeks to come.

Officials at the New England Aquarium had planned to release about a dozen of the dinner-plate-sized turtles in the Gulf last month, until the massive British Petroleum leak disrupted their plans. Then a contingency idea to release the animals off South Carolina was also put on hold after signs emerged that the oil may be rounding Florida and heading up the East Coast.

“I don’t want to release them into a questionable environment at this stage,’’ said Connie Merigo, director of the Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehab program. “It’s safer for them in a controlled environment. We are controlling their water temperature, nutrition, medical condition, everything. We’re going to keep them safe here for now.’’

While environmental officials are worried about all Gulf wildlife, they are especially concerned about Kemp’s ridley turtles. Breeding pairs number only in the thousands, and the animals with the dark-colored shells are considered one of the smallest, and the world’s most endangered, sea turtles. The turtles primarily nest on certain Mexican beaches, but there is also a small nesting site in Texas.

The turtles were once abundant, but consumption of turtle eggs as an aphrodisiac and entanglement in fishing gear caused their population to plummet. The outlawing of turtle egg harvests, protection against poachers, and the development of turtle-friendly fishing gear have helped the population start a rebound: More than 7,000 females nested last year.

By yesterday in the Gulf, 207 turtles, most dead, had been found in the oil spill area. Only three, including the two Kemp’s ridleys, were clearly harmed by the oil; they are alive and being treated, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman. Turtles frequently wash ashore this time of year, and it is not clear if the numbers officials are seeing are part of this annual occurrence or are somehow related to the spill.

Cape Cod has long had a connection to the tiny turtles. Every year, the Kemp’s ridleys come north to feed on crabs and other marine life off the Cape. For reasons no one completely understands, some do not start paddling south before the cold hits. Because the turtles are cold-blooded, the drop in water temperature robs them of the ability to move. Unable to paddle their flippers or even to feed, they are at the mercy of ocean currents and wash up on shore when a strong wind blows.

For years, volunteers on Cape Cod have walked the beaches on winter days looking for Kemp’s ridleys and other turtles. This past year, 187 ridleys were found, according to Bob Prescott of Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

Most were dead or died soon afterward, but 52 were sent to the New England Aquarium, which took most in and sent the rest to other rehab clinics.

Now, Merigo said she will probably hold the Aquarium turtles until Cape Cod waters warm up and release them this summer. That would be the best way to ensure they avoid any oil.

Today, 13 ridleys are ready to be released as well as three green sea turtles and Merigo expects more will be ready by August. Holding them until then is not expected to harm them, she said.

The Aquarium has long released turtles off New England. But this year’s planned release off Louisiana was designed to reinstitute an annual ritual interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. It remains to be seen what will become of the turtles in the Gulf.

Prescott asked: “Will the oil knock out the whole food web?’’ He said the true Gulf impact will be seen in future winters on Cape Cod. “We usually see 2- or 3-year-old turtles up here getting caught in the winters,’’ Prescott said. “Will it be this eerie no-ridley coastline?’’

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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