For the first time in 75 years, hatchlings of the world’s smallest species of sea turtles have been discovered on the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of New Orleans.
Wildlife experts at the Breton National Wildlife Refuge have documented more than 53 turtles and two live pups navigating out to sea, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority announced in a press statement this week.
The news was especially uplifting to environmentalists, as the cubs were Kemp’s camel turtles, an endangered species that is also the world’s smallest sea turtle. The turtles are primarily found in the Gulf, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Their population boomed during the early 1900s when tens of thousands of females nested in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. However, from the mid-20th century to the 1980s, their population declined drastically, reaching a low of only a few hundred females.
Some of the biggest threats facing Kemp’s ridleys include being inadvertently caught by fishermen, being harvested or having their eggs harvested, degradation of their nesting habitats, natural predators preying on their eggs and young, being hit by seagoing vessels, ocean pollution and climate change.
The recent discovery of the hatchlings in Louisiana is particularly significant as 95% of nests take place in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
“Louisiana was largely written off as a breeding ground for sea turtles decades ago, but this determination shows why barrier island recovery is so important,” said Coastal Authority chair Chip Kline.
He added: “As we develop and execute projects statewide, we always keep in mind what it takes to preserve our communities and improve wildlife habitats. With this knowledge, we can ensure that these turtles and other wildlife return to our shores year after year.”
BP’s oil spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 had a major impact on the Chandeleur Islands, along with several hurricanes and other tropical weather systems in recent years. As a result, the Louisiana Coastal Authority and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have been closely monitoring the islands since May as part of a regional effort to restore them. The effort includes replenishing and protecting several species of marine life affected by the oil spill.
“It is well known that the Chandeleur Islands provide important habitats for a large number of important species; But with the recent discovery of a successful Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatching, the value of the islands to the region has increased,” said Jack Montoucet, secretary of the wildlife and fisheries division.
“We are gaining a better understanding of the benefits this barrier island restoration can bring in restoring this endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The Executive Director of the Coastal Authority, Bren Haase, added: “We have a responsibility to protect the wildlife here, and that means creating safe and nurturing environments for these turtles and other animals that call Louisiana home. It’s an exciting discovery and we hope to see more youngsters appear in the coming weeks and years.”
The peak of the sea turtle breeding season is from June to July, with most fry emerging 50 to 60 days later. More nests may be discovered in the coming weeks, according to the coastal authority.
In addition to the Knights of Kemp, wildlife experts have also discovered the endangered loggerhead turtles that nest on the islands.