Effects Of Oil Spills On Sea Turtles

Oiled Sea Turtles Rescued June 1 Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists and enforcement agents rescued four oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtles this morning off the Grand Isle coast.
lagohsep/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Oil spills can be devastating for a variety of marine life, especially for endangered species like sea turtles. 

There are 7 species of sea turtles, and all are endangered. Sea turtles are animals that travel widely, sometimes thousands of miles. They also use the shorelines, crawling up onto beaches to lay their eggs. Because of their endangered status and their wide range, sea turtles are species that are of particular concern in an oil spill.

There are several ways that oil can impact sea turtles.

How Do Oil Spills Effect Sea Turtles?

Ingestion of Oil or Oil-Contaminated Prey:

Turtles don't tend to avoid oil spill areas, and may continue to feed in these areas. They may eat oil or prey that has been contaminated by oil, resulting in a number of complications for the turtle. These can include bleeding, ulcers, inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, problems with digestion, damage to internal organs, and overall effects on the immune and reproductive systems.

External Effects From Swimming in Oil:

Swimming in oil can be dangerous for a turtle. Breathing vapors from the oil can result in injury (see below). Oil on the turtle's skin may result in skin and eye problems and increased potential for infection. Turtles can also suffer burns to their mucous membranes in the eyes and mouth.

Inhalation of Oil Vapors:

Sea turtles must come to the ocean surface to breathe.

When they come to the surface in or near an oil spill, they may breathe toxic fumes from the oil. Fumes may result in irritation of the turtle's eyes or mouth, and internal damage such as irritation to the respiratory system, injured tissues or pneumonia.

Impacts On Sea Turtle Nesting:

Sea turtles nest on beaches - crawling up on the beach and digging holes for their eggs.

They lay their eggs, and then cover them up, until the turtles hatch and the hatchlings make their way to the seas. Oil on beaches may affect the health of the eggs and the hatchlings, leading to a lower hatchling survival rate.

What Can Be Done?

If affected turtles are found and collected, they can be rehabilitated. In the case of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, turtles are being rehabilitated at 4 facilities (1 in Louisiana, 1 in Mississippi, and 2 in Florida).

More Information on Oil Spills and Sea Turtles: