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Q&A with Dr Chris Pincetich

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Q&A with Dr Chris Pincetich

  1. 1. Marine Investigator Chris Pincetich, PhD ____________________________________________________ The Catch Conservation Fund recently spoke with Marine Investigator Dr. Chris Pincetich, Campaigner and Marine Biologist at Sea Turtle Restoration Project, to find out how the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is impacting endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico: The Catch Conservation Fund: Chris, I know that you're extremely busy preparing for your next trip to the Gulf, so I want to thank you for taking time out to talk with The Catch Conservation Fund about your investigations so far, and possible solutions to the environmental disaster that’s being caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. How did you originally become involved in marine biology and conservation work? Has it always been something that interested you? Chris Pincetich: I spent summers at the beach for as long as I can remember, first digging holes in the sand, then jumping through waves, and eventually diving and surfing. When faced with the prospect of going away to college I chose UC Santa Cruz, which offered one of the nations’ top undergraduate marine biology programs and was close to some fantastic surf spots. I have immersed myself in ocean science and conservation work ever since. The Catch Conservation Fund: We have been reporting about the work STRP and PRETOMA are doing in the Eastern Pacific for over a year now, but I was completely unaware of the endangered Kemp's Ridley. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the Kemp's Ridley and how it came to be the most endangered sea turtle in the Gulf? Chris Pincetich: Just about every Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle left in the world swims into the Gulf of Mexico in spring to nest in the summer, and the Gulf is not always a friendly place for sea turtles. Kemp’s Ridleys are the most endangered sea turtles as a result of human activities, but several factors make them especially sensitive, including their nesting behavior, their habitat preference, and the deadly impacts of offshore oil and commercial fishing. Of all sea turtles in the world, Kemp’s Ridleys are unique in that they often nest during the day, so they are very vulnerable to predators and human poachers. They tend to live and forage in the relatively shallow coastal shelf zones of the Gulf and U.S. east coast where there is also a very high density of deadly fishing activity. Finally, when their populations were already dwindling due to poaching and deadly fisheries, a massive oil spill in 1979 occurred right offshore of their primary nesting beaches, jeopardizing the entire population. Of all the factors contributing to the demise of the smallest and rarest sea turtle in the world, commercial shrimp trawling is likely the deadliest threat to Kemp’s Ridleys in the Gulf today. The Catch Conservation Fund: What significance do these turtles have to the environment? If they were forced into extinction, how would that impact the Gulf Coast ecosystem and overall food chain? Chris Pincetich: Kemp’s Ridleys are an integral part of the neritic food chain, keeping crab and other invertebrate populations in check. All sea turtles contribute to the health of beach sand dune ecosystems when they deposit hundreds of eggs into this nutrient poor environment. Unfortunately, Gulf of Mexico sea turtle populations have been decimated to such a degree that is it difficult to ascertain their true roles in the ecosystem because we can now only study a small remnant of what was historically a large and much more significant part of the coastal community.
  2. 2. The Catch Conservation Fund: Please tell me a little bit about your first mission to the Gulf Coast. Where did your investigations take you, and what did you discover along the way? Chris Pincetich: My first mission to the Gulf galvanized my feelings that there was a need for greater involvement by independent science, conservation, and social organizations to immediately increase the factual understanding of current conditions, exponentially expand sea turtle and wildlife rescue and recovery, and attempt to care for and console the coastal communities inundated with grief and confusion. When I arrived in Destin, Florida in late June I witnessed the arrival or tar balls to what was a pristine, white sand sea turtle nesting beach. The oil had already soaked deep into Pensacola Beach and was spreading east. Conducting interviews with Destin residents, I learned that BP was slow to set up what most viewed as ineffective cleanup throughout the Florida panhandle and I learned that residents had witnessed airplanes spraying dispersant chemicals over coastal waters very close to the public beaches. My work to coordinate and increase sea turtle rescue teams sent me west to Alabama and Mississippi on the 4th of July weekend, where I witnessed thousands of people relaxing and playing on oil soaked beaches! BP crews using mechanical sifters mixed all the oil into the sands, which were no longer white near the shore, but a pale orange dotted with pea-sized tar balls. Since the sea turtle rescue boats were having the best results leaving from Louisiana ports, I met with scientist and activist partners in New Orleans, Louisiana. After a fly-over and boat trip I had seen, felt, smelled, and thoroughly experienced the massive BP spill from four states and from many vantage points. Excellent collaborative meetings and monitoring projects ensued. Working closely with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and Jean-Michel Cousteau I visited the oiled sea turtle rehabilitation facility, the public aquarium where several rescued sea turtles were on display, and shared our mission to rescue more sea turtles with media, agency, and BP representatives. The final leg of my first Gulf mission ended in Texas for the opening of shrimping season, one of the deadliest days for Gulf sea turtles each year. Once again I was flying over the Gulf in a 4-seater airplane with all eyes focused for sea turtles, oil, and now for shrimp boats illegally trawling before the opening day. Our team spotted the westernmost evidence of an offshore oil slick and reported it to the local news and reported the position and activity of over 70 shrimp trawlers to the authorities who were embarking on their evening rounds of inspections for required Turtle Excluder Devices on the nets of each shrimper. The Catch Conservation Fund: How has the oil spill been impacting Kemp's Ridleys in the Gulf so far? What other sea turtles are native to the Gulf Coast, and how are they being affected? Chris Pincetich: The deadly impacts of BP oil and increased fishing pressure as a result of the spill have killed 456 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. This number is likely a small fraction of the totals that were killed and were either burned or sank to the bottom of the ocean. Tens of thousands of sea turtles in the Gulf have likely ingested BP oil and inhaled toxic fumes from the spill, and the effects of these toxic exposures could slow or stop normal growth and reproductive activity. Five of the worlds’ seven species of sea turtles reside in the Gulf of Mexico, and the timing of the BP spill coincided with the peak nesting period for all of them. Adult sea turtles have the best chance of survival, but juveniles and hatchlings in the Gulf this summer and throughout the next few months are going to be exposed to a toxic mix of oil and dispersants near benthic feeding areas that could be harmful or even deadly. Every sea turtle species in the Gulf was jeopardized by the spill, and the cumulative impact of its effects on them will take years, maybe decades, to completely understand.
  3. 3. The Catch Conservation Fund: How does STRP get involved when a disaster like this strikes? How does your organization interact with local governments and NGOs when it comes to issues like permitting and volunteer mobilization? Chris Pincetich: Immediately after the disaster struck, STRP engaged National Marine Fisheries Service to share our concerns for sea turtles. When our repeated pleas for information and to assist went unanswered, we began legal action and independent, grass roots mobilization to help. We consulted with our scientific advisory team every step of the way for expert guidance. As a result, we forced BP to stop burning sea turtles alive in their “controlled burn” cleanups, advised BP and Coast Guard on rescue teams that were mandated for all controlled burn units, mobilized thousands of activists to hold BP accountable, and built strong coalitions to continue to increase sea turtle protections in the Gulf. The Catch Conservation Fund: There has been a great deal of publicity about US Wildlife and Fisheries teaming-up with NGOs and private organizations to move hundreds of sea turtle eggs from the Gulf's Emerald Coast to the Atlantic. Would you please explain why they are doing that? Chris Pincetich: The effort to relocate sea turtle nests from the Gulf to eastern Florida received massive media attention based on goals that were never achieved. Hundreds of loggerheads and other sea turtles were nesting in the Gulf during June and July, and it was clear to everyone that their hatchlings would be in serious jeopardy if allowed to enter the poisoned waters of the Gulf. Therefore, the nests were moved. While seven hundred nests were planned to be “saved”, the efforts only moved 278 before declaring the habitat was “safe” for baby sea turtles. While all this was occurring in Florida and Alabama, government officials into Texas waters were releasing thousands of endangered Kemp’s Ridley hatchlings! We fought through many channels to stop this, but “business as usual” prevailed. Ocean currents off of Texas likely delivered these hatchlings into the heart of the BP disaster, but we will never really know what happened to these poor, innocent hatchlings. The Catch Conservation Fund: STRP's Gulf Office Director Carole Allen recently sent out an email stating that over 400 Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles had been found dead since the spill began, but the oil did not cause the vast majority of these deaths. Would you mind explaining that? Chris Pincetich: Shrimp trawls have been, and likely will remain, the leading killer of endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. During May, oil was rapidly approaching Gulf shores and the opening of shrimping season was close as well. In an effort to appease concerned fishermen, the shrimping season opened early and hastily. Waves of dead sea turtles arrived on beaches and coincided with waves of people searching for oil. As a result, more dead sea turtles were spotted on Gulf beaches than ever before, and evidence of oil on or in them was virtually non-existent. The initial round of 75 sea turtle necropsies found strong evidence that death was caused by drowning in shrimp trawl nets, not oil. These investigations of the hundreds of dead sea turtles continue to this day. The Catch Conservation Fund: What needs to be done to get Gulf Coast shrimpers on board with using TEDs then? The US recently banned the import of shrimp from Costa Rica for this very reason. What do you think is needed to generate the political will to change this here in the United States? Chris Pincetich: Through a combination of education and legal action, we hope to achieve the community support and political will to ensure that every fishing net or dredge in the Gulf of Mexico has the most advanced modifications available, like the TEDs, to protect endangered sea turtles from capture, injury, and stress.
  4. 4. The Catch Conservation Fund: You are currently preparing to embark on another tour of the Gulf Coast. What are your goals for this second mission? Chris Pincetich: The second mission will again work to increase the on-water rescue of sea turtles from BP oil in the Gulf. This work is of critical importance and the current response is a fraction of what we believe is adequate to protect these endangered sea turtles. I also expect to continue the habitat monitoring, water sampling, and coalition building work we started in June. The Catch Conservation Fund: Where can our readers get more information about the oil spill's affect on endangered Kemp's Ridleys and other sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico? Chris Pincetich: Please check in regularly to our website at www.seaturtles.org and keep in touch via our Facebook page and through Twitter (@SeaTurtles_org). The Catch Conservation Fund: What can people reading this do now to help out? Chris Pincetich: Each and every one of us can take real steps to help save sea turtles in our everyday lives. First and foremost, stop eating and buying the seafood whose fisheries kill hundreds or thousands of sea turtles a year! These are shrimp, swordfish, and tuna fisheries. Secondly, reduce your personal oil consumption and carbon footprint. Oil development is destroying sea turtle habitat all over the globe, and global warming threatens to destroy nesting beaches. Finally, stop accepting and purchasing disposable plastics and take action to clean your streets, beaches, and watersheds of all plastic and trash to stem the epidemic of pelagic plastic pollution plaguing our oceans. And, join the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and increase our political resources! The Catch Conservation Fund: Chris, thank you so much for joining us to talk about these vital issues. I hope our readers get a great deal out of this discussion, and that you will join us again in a few months to give us an update on the situation. Chris Pincetich: Certainly. I look forward to it. Thank you for reading our interview with Marine Investigator Dr. Chris Pincetich. The Catch Conservation Fund is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Your tax-deductible donation helps us protect endangered sea turtles and sharks around the world. Find out more about global threats to shark and sea turtle survival and what you can do to help by visiting the following websites: www.pretoma.org www.seaturtles.org www.migramar.org www.cimad.org www.tirn.net ____________________________________________________________ The Catch Conservation Fund ● 788 Holiday Road ● McCormick, SC 29835 www.catchconservation.com

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