BP and the US Coast Guard have agreed to allow wildlife rescuers to pluck sea turtles out of corralled oil patches to keep them from being incinerated alive, thus ending one of the most dramatic – and tragic – consequences of the Gulf oil spill.
In return, wildlife organizations that brought a lawsuit last week in New Orleans federal court agreed to remove a request for an injunction to completely ban the burns, which have become a critical method for BP and the Coast Guard to neutralize the oil slick and keep more oil from washing ashore on the Gulf, where it threatens hundreds of other species from crabs to pelicans.
“Finally, I can sleep again knowing the sea turtles are not being burned alive,'' said Carole Allen, Gulf Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network in Houston, Texas, in a statement.
IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature
It's not known how many turtles have died in hundreds of controlled oil burns far out at sea. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen has said there's no evidence of such incinerations. But a shrimp boat captain reported he had been ordered away from areas where he had seen snared turtles. In deep water, animal and fish carcasses quickly sink, researchers say.
The wildlife toll so far pales in comparison with that of the Exxon Valdez, where at least 35,000 sea birds died. In the Gulf oil spill, that number is only about 1,000 – primarily because the spill is 50 miles from shore and a mile deep.
Nevertheless, the turtle story added to public anger against BP, which has taken responsibility for the April 20 Deepwater Horizon accident that caused the largest Gulf of Mexico spill ever. In an online petition, more than 150,000 people demanded that the company stop the burns in order to save the turtles. At least 275 burns over a 500 square mile area have taken place since the spill began, removing some 238,000 barrels (10 million gallons) of oil from the surface.
Shrimp boat captain Michael Ellis first reported the turtle incinerations in a video. "They drag a boom between two shrimp boats and whatever gets caught between the two boats, they circle it up and catch it on fire. Once the turtles are in there, they can’t get out," Mr. Ellis said.
Texas A&M Gulf researcher Thomas Shirley confirmed the "burn box" deaths in an interview with the Monitor, adding that hundreds of dead turtles and other sea life already found in and around the spill represent but "a tiny fraction of what the actual damage is."
"One tragedy is that juvenile turtles and other animals head toward the oil instead of away from it," says Mr. Shirley. "To them it looks like habitat. They have no pre-adaptations to know what it is."
Juvenile turtles especially follow floating masses of seaweed called sargassum across the open Gulf. Those sargassum, when oil-soaked, are corralled by fire-proof booms as part of the burn process.
The burns have been controversial from the beginning. Despite air quality concerns, officials say they're one of the most effective ways available to rid the Gulf of the growing slick of oil, and a key part of an unprecedented effort to contain the spill and stop broader ecological damage.
No controlled burns will take place until at least Tuesday because of bad weather in the Gulf. As part of the agreement, BP said it will allow wildlife biologists onboard clean-up vessels to spot and remove ensnared turtles.