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FAQs on Sea Turtles, Dolphins, and Whales and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill


After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Dr. Brian Stacy, a NOAA veterinarian, cleans a young Kemp's ridley turtle aboard vessel before the captured turtles were taken to Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans for rehabilitation. (photo courtesy NOAA, Florida FWCC)
Dr. Brian Stacy, NOAA veterinarian, cleans a young Kemp's ridley turtle

· Sea Turtles, Dolphins, and Whales and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

· Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA)


The FAQs below provide information on the efforts NOAA and its partners have made over the past year and the current status of response efforts.

Is NOAA still responding to injured or dead marine mammals and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico?

Yes, NOAA coordinates the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP), which includes the Southeast U.S. Stranding Network, and the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN). These networks have been in existence for decades and are continuing to respond to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings throughout the Gulf Coast.

An Unusual Mortality Event Investigation is underway for dolphins and whales in the northern Gulf.

NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Unified Command Wildlife Branch developed a detailed plan to transition from enhanced DWH oil spill response back to the normal stranding response and rehabilitation procedures, when deemed appropriate. This transition was based on environmental conditions and whether stranded animals had evidence of oiling.

  • On October 21, 2010, response activities for sea turtles transitioned from DWH spill response to normal sea turtle stranding response operations.
  • On November, 3, 2010, response activities for marine mammals transitioned from DWH spill response to normal marine mammal stranding response operations.*
  • On December 3, 2010, DWH marine mammal response was reinstated in central and eastern Louisiana due to the stranding of oiled dolphins in that area and still remains in effect since additional oiled dolphins are being found.
  • On May 25, 2011, Marine Mammal MC252 Stranding Response has stepped down for central and eastern Louisiana. All marine mammal and sea turtle strandings in the northern Gulf of Mexico has now transitioned back to the traditional Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.

    *There is an ongoing unusual mortality event for marine mammals in the northern Gulf that began in February 2010 that currently requires enhanced stranding response and animal sampling.

What did NOAA do during the DWH oil spill to help marine mammals and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico?

NOAA staff actively worked within the Unified Command's Wildlife Branch on all rescue, response and rehabilitation efforts for marine mammals and sea turtles throughout the response to the oil spill (late spring, summer and fall of 2010) and is continuing to work on response activities for marine mammals in central and eastern Louisiana.

NOAA, USFWS, and the Wildlife Branch coordinated the following response activities:

Marine mammal and sea turtle stranding response and rehabilitation

NOAA, in collaboration with USFWS, coordinate the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP) and the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN), which are composed of state and federal agencies and state and local wildlife organizations dedicated to assisting animals that are stranded or in distress and need care.

Our stranding network partners in the northern Gulf were integral in assisting with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, as well as stranding responders from other regions who were deployed to help with the response as needed.

Marine mammal and sea turtle rehabilitation

We established four primary de-oiling/rehabilitation facilities in the northern Gulf (in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida) that were outfitted with the equipment and veterinary care necessary to triage and treat oiled and stranded marine mammals and sea turtles. The purpose of these primary facilities was to de-oil, triage, stabilize and rehabilitate rescued animals.

Secondary facilities were also identified to receive sea turtles for longer-term care after they had been stabilized at the primary de-oiling facilities. This system ensured that space and staff would be available at the primary de-oiling facilities to continue to receive new animals and provide focused care at the early, critical stages.

On-water rescue of sea turtles

Sea turtle experts from NOAA, USFWS, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, In-water Research Group, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the Riverhead Foundation implemented an active surveillance and rescue operation to search for and rescue oiled sea turtles and take them to rehabilitation facilities for de-oiling and veterinary care.

Between May and September 2010, crews headed 40 to 60 miles offshore in charter fishing boats to search for oiled juvenile turtles and rescue as many as possible. Guided by information from airplane overflights, the teams located juvenile sea turtle habitat (sargassum mats located in oceanic convergence areas) to search for oiled turtles. The turtles were captured and brought aboard the vessel where the teams gave them an initial cleaning and exam, obtained oil samples and transported them to deoiling/ rehabilitation facility.

Through this effort, over 450 living oiled sea turtles were rescued and brought into rehabilitation.

On-water monitoring of marine mammals

To respond to concerns from the public that dolphins in Alabama were showing signs of distress during the height of the oil spill, NOAA Fisheries Service's marine mammal biologists and partners conducted visual health assessments of the resident community of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) inhabiting the Perdido Bay complex near Orange Beach, AL, to monitor for behavioral or physical changes caused by the oil spill. These assessment surveys found that there were no visible changes to the dolphin's behavior or body condition. Please see our fact sheet on the bottlenose dolphin residents [pdf] for more information.

Monitoring efforts for these bottlenose dolphins will continue in the future through NOAA's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP)

Sea turtle nest monitoring and translocation (coordinated by USFWS)

Scientists from USFWS worked with NOAA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NASA, Innovative Health Applications, non-governmental organizations, and private industry, and volunteers to lead the translocation of 274 turtle nests from beaches in Alabama and the Florida panhandle to the east coast of Florida. The goal of this effort was to prevent sea turtle hatchlings from entering the oiled waters of the northern Gulf.

The translocation project involved 265 loggerhead sea turtle nests, 4 green turtle nests, and 5 Kemp's ridley nests. Nests were excavated during late incubation and placed in foam boxes for transport and final incubation. FedEx donated the transportation for the effort and moved 28,681 sea turtle eggs from various pick-up locations in Alabama and Florida to the incubation facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL. At the incubation facility, the nests were kept in a climate-controlled environment and monitored by biologists until the hatchlings emerged and could be released. Hatchlings were released off the beaches of Canaveral National Seashore, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge/Kennedy Space Center, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In total, 14,216 loggerhead, 125 Kemp's ridley, and 455 green sea turtle hatchlings were released back into the wild through this translocation effort.

Protected species observer program

NOAA and USFWS, as part of the Unified Command, developed measures to help reduce the impact of oil spill clean-up operations on sea turtles and other wildlife. These measures included the monitoring and avoidance of turtle nests during mechanical beach cleaning, the placement of trained marine observers on oil skimming vessels and in-situ burn operations, as well as requiring the use of turtle excluder devices (a metal grid within a trawl net that directs turtles toward an escape opening) on trawl nets used to skim for oil.

How are marine mammals and sea turtles affected by oil?

Cetaceans, manatees, and sea turtles may be affected both internally and externally after being exposed to oil, chemical dispersants, or dispersed oil. Typical pathways for exposure are through the skin, ingestion, and inhalation).

Exposure risks:

    • swimming in oil or dispersants can result in these toxic chemicals coming into contact with all external body parts such as skin and eyes
    • eating or swallowing oil
    • consuming prey that has also come into contact with oil
    • breathing volatile compounds that the oil gives off

Nesting sea turtle females and their eggs are at additional risk from oil washing ashore where exposure to chemicals may result in the decreased survival of eggs and possible developmental defects in hatchlings.

Oil also has the potential to persist in the environment long after a spill and could have long-term impacts on sea turtles, marine mammals, and other wildlife such as fish and coral reefs. For more detailed information, see the fact sheet on oil impacts [pdf].

What was the "designated spill area"?

The marine mammal and sea turtle response unit of the Unified Area Command defined the designated spill area for marine mammals and sea turtles as geographic area from the Texas/Louisiana border through Apalachicola, Florida. This area was identified as the area where oiled animals were likely to strand based on the location and movement of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the distribution patterns of marine mammals and sea turtles.

Where can I find data on the number of marine mammals and sea turtles impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

Marine mammal and sea turtle stranding and live capture data is available on our website. Many of the stranded sea turtles and marine mammals reported during the DWH spill did not show external signs of oil. NOAA and our partners in the stranding networks carefully examined and collected samples from each carcass that was found to help determine what may have caused the animal to strand. Marine mammals and sea turtles strand for many different reasons, both from human causes (such as bycatch in fishing gear) and natural causes (such as disease outbreaks).

What happens next?

NOAA, USFWS, and other Federal trustee agencies are currently working within the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process to determine the type and amount of restoration needed to compensate the public for harm to natural resources as a result of the oil spill.

NRDA is a legal process and is conducted according to the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990. This process requires trustees to demonstrate the link between the release of oil and the injury toresources, loss of services, and/or lost human use of those resources and services. Determining the amount of injury and appropriate restoration requires an understanding of the baseline condition of the natural resources and human uses, that is the condition if the spill had not occurred.

For marine mammals and sea turtles, the trustees (NOAA, USFWS, and state trustees) will assess the nature and extent of the injuries, develop a restoration plan, seek compensation from the responsible party, oversee and/or implement the restoration plan, and conduct/oversee monitoring to ensure restoration has occurred.

Additional Information

Updated: March 15, 2013

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