Selected tags: Gulf of Mexico

The future of Galveston Bay: Implications of the oil spill

Fishing boat coming in from Galveston Bay. Photo Credit: Roy_Luck

Fishing boat coming in from Galveston Bay.
Photo Credit: Roy.Luck

Galveston Bay is a busy body of water. It carries the traffic of the Houston Ship Channel. It is a popular recreation destination for fishermen and others. It not only serves as a home to birds and large marine animals, but also as a nursery ground for many important seafood species. It is the nation’s seventh largest estuary and among them the second most important seafood producer, behind only the Chesapeake Bay.

The immediate effects of the oil spill on March 22, 2014, are visible in the oil sheens and tar balls floating in the water and the “oiled” birds and animals that crews are trying to help. But, we can’t see how this heavy marine fuel, containing toxic chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), is harming shrimp, crabs, oysters, red drum and other fish that call the waters of Galveston Bay home. This contamination can hang around for a long time. Studies from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill show that even in low concentrations PAHs can disrupt the development of fish and invertebrate larvae; and in high concentrations can be lethal. Recent reports of tunas susceptible to deformities from the 2010 spill attest to the potential risks long after the spill itself is gone.

The timing of this spill is bad for several key species especially important to the seafood industry and consumers. Brown shrimp have already spawned offshore, and March is the month when the young ride tides coming back inshore to settle in seagrass beds and marshes, habitats that are their nurseries – and where the water is now contaminated with oil pollution. The young are especially vulnerable from now until about May or June. Young blue crabs that settled during the winter in Galveston Bay are also in danger, as are baby fish; including Gulf menhaden, a large harvest in the region’s fishing industry and a fish that is a vital food for larger fish and other animals. Marine life in the way of the oil is dying; and those not killed are exposed to toxic chemicals that could impair their reproductive potential, and some fish that feed on worms in bottom sediments may acquire and carry toxics in their tissues. The seafood “crops” in the area could well be reduced.

Anyone who has been to Galveston Bay has seen the many dolphins are other large marine life that frequent the area and eat these other fish. As these contaminants enter Bay food chains our concern turns not only to how these animals are affected by the spill in the short term, but also to their longer-term health, and even to whether or not seafood species that live there could constitute a human health risk that must be guarded against into the future.

Long-term monitoring of the ultimate footprint of this spill will be necessary so that we can continue to understand how it impacts the ecosystem, and protect people who eat seafood from the bay.

As reports come out about the history of the ships involved in this spill and how the accident occurred it is important to remember that in areas where a large amount of pollution exists so close to such important habitat we must do everything we can to ensure the long-term safety of the species we rely on for ocean health and our own supply of food. Read More »

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Lawsuits and lasting solutions for the Gulf’s red snapper fishery

For media inquiries please contact:

Matt Smelser, msmelser@edf.org, (512) 731-3023

EDF takes another step today in our decades-long pursuit of vibrant, productive fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico when we file an amicus brief in an ongoing lawsuit over the red snapper fishery. The issue at hand is whether NOAA violated federal law in its management of the recreational sector, allowing significant overharvesting and in so doing potentially jeopardizing one of the nation’s biggest success stories in fisheries recovery. It’s always unfortunate when fisheries challenges end up in the courtroom. In this instance, we hope that there’ll be a simultaneous uptake of tangible solutions that can improve recreational fishing opportunity while ensuring continued growth and recovery of the red snapper population. The good news is that Gulf fishermen, just as they have in the past, are coming forward with creative management ideas that we need for long-term success. We should build on that to forge greater cooperation and ensure everyone can share in the benefits of a thriving red snapper fishery.

In many ways the story of Gulf red snapper in recent years is one of remarkable accomplishment. Bold leadership from fishermen—and decisive action by the Gulf Fishery Management Council—put the depleted red snapper fishery on the path to recovery. Failed commercial fishery management was fixed with a catch share program that imposed individual accountability, reduced waste, and helped end chronic overfishing. This new system has yielded remarkable dividends, allowing the safe catch for both the recreational and commercial sectors to more than double since 2008. This increase has helped reinvigorate coastal seafood businesses and brought more fresh local seafood to dinner tables across the Gulf and beyond. EDF is proud to have contributed to this success.

But there’s still a fundamental problem: profound failure in recreational management is denying anglers the benefits they should be enjoying, while threatening to turn back the clock on sustainability. Although the recreational allocation has remained constant at 49 percent of the fishery, the growing Gulf red snapper “pie” is not leading to enhanced recreational fishing opportunities. On the contrary, both individual anglers and charter boat captains face growing frustration. Catch is still controlled by season and bag limits (in addition to size limits), which have shrunk dramatically. The 2013 recreational season was just 42 days.

2013 recreational landings landings based on preliminary data

Note: 2013 recreational landings are projected

This same failed recreational management system threatens to undermine recovery of the red snapper population. Through no fault of Gulf anglers who play by the rules, red snapper have been overharvested in the recreational fishery in six of the last seven years, often by significant margins. Preliminary data suggests that in 2013 recreational catch exceeded its quota by close to 100 percent. Recovery of red snapper is too fragile to tolerate a system that routinely breaches science-based limits. A new benchmark assessment released last year showed that while we’ve made progress, red snapper are still overfished and we’ve had weaker than usual recruitment in recent years. It is clear that failed recreational management is not only limiting recreational opportunities, it could endanger the long-term health of the fishery.

We call for fresh thinking about how management in the recreational red snapper fishery can be improved. That thinking can help move us towards a recreational fishery with both year-round fishing opportunities for Gulf anglers and long-term sustainability. Decision-makers must consider new management solutions, reduce tensions and foster greater collaboration among fishing sectors.

The good news is that fishermen are generating new ideas. Recreational participants have asked for solutions that will allow seasons to be longer and more flexible.

In the charter boat sector, many believe that the successful commercial management program could offer charter captains a model for how to lengthen their seasons and increase revenues. Meanwhile, Gulf anglers have previously proposed a tagging program similar to those used for hunting large game. Tags could be managed at the state or local level, by state wildlife agencies or local fishing clubs.

Rather than let this litigation drag on, the Gulf Fishery Management Council should use its meeting next month to urgently consider such new management approaches. And instead of digging in on opposing sides, stakeholders should come together to forge lasting solutions. We will be offering more ideas on such approaches in the months ahead. We all have a shared interest in a healthy Gulf and vibrant red snapper fishery. Bold and creative reform can offer win-win solutions that enhance recreational opportunities while conserving red snapper—for today’s anglers and for generations to come.

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Expedition Cuba Part 3: Collaborative Research Establishes Baseline Monitoring in Cuba

Cuban and Mexican researchers, Alejandra Briones and Ivan Mendez, look at a sample that will be analyzed in CIM’s lab to assess the faunal communities in the water column.

By: Kendra Karr and Valerie Miller

Part III of a blog series detailing a February 2013 Research Expedition in Cuba organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark teams and funded by the Waitt Foundation. A team of scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. along with EDF staff set sail to share knowledge, scientific methodologies and to survey shark populations in Cuba. The tri-national expedition was led by Cuban scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and U.S. scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

Researchers from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. participated in an exploratory research cruise in the Gulf of Batabanó along the Southern coast of Cuba to monitor shark populations, local faunal communities and to train fellow team members in monitoring techniques.  Leaving the port of Batabanó, the RV Felipe Poeytransected the shallow, soft-sediment habitat that comprises the majority of the Gulf.  The cruise set off for the remote and sparsely populated Isle of Youth, the largest island in the Canarreos Archipelago.  Canarreos Archipelago is home to a national park and several marine protected areas (MPAs) which contain habitats that possess ecotourism potential and provide refuge for ecologically and economically important species such as lobsters, sharks and finfish.

U.S. researcher Dr. Ernie Estevez collects the last sample of fauna from the water column outside the corals reefs of Punta Frances.

Monitoring activities started near the southwestern portion of the island, inside Siguanea Bay, continued around Punta Frances and into the nearshore waters facing the Caribbean Sea.  This part of the Isle of Youth has a diverse array of habitats, including some of the healthiest and most intact coral reefs and mangroves in the region, as well as seagrass beds, and soft sediment habitats.   Conducting a research expedition in multiple habitats presents a unique opportunity to observe organisms living at the bottom of the ocean (in benthic habitats) and in the water column surrounding these habitats. The expedition recruited two benthic researchers (scientists who study organisms living along the bottom of the ocean) to join the team comprised mainly of shark scientists, to capitalize on the opportunity and create a baseline monitoring program of these faunal communities across habitats in the Gulf Batabanó and surrounding waters.  Dr. Ernie Estevez of the U.S. and Mote Marine Laboratory and Dr. Maickel Almanza of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research led the design of the monitoring program.

Monitoring programs help provide information about the health of the area prior to future impacts (i.e. disturbance either natural or human caused), so that analysis can aid forecasting.  Baseline data helps measure the severity of ecosystem disruptions and helps to calibrate recovery programs.  Additionally, this data may help identify areas that are more resistant, or less resilient to disturbances over time.  Long term monitoring of ecological communities and populations is one of the most effective tools that managers and scientist have to track and analyze how ecosystems work.   Unfortunately, long-term datasets are rare and those that do exist are often limited in geographic scope.

What’s a faunal community and why are they important?

The team identified plankton living in the water column and macrobenthos (small fish, crustaceans, worms and mollusks living at the bottom of the ocean) across habitats as targets because changes in the diversity and abundance of these fauna can be indicators to the health of the ecosystem, and they are critical components of important fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. The small fish, crustaceans, worms and mollusks that comprise the fauna collected in the monitoring program are often the principal food source for fish in the region. Sharks, as apex predators, depend on highly productive foraging areas (e.g., dense seagrass meadows) and support abundant amounts of prey, such as larger fish that consume plankton. The team also recorded environmental variables necessary for a healthy habitat, including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, depth and organic content in sediments.   Absent baseline species and ecosystem data, future efforts to end overfishing, protect marine life and improve the management of marine resources will not succeed.  This is just one of the ways in which Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. are working together to improve monitoring efforts that will increase data availability and enable a tri-national assessment of shark population status, including an understanding of how variability in abundance of faunal communities and their predators influence foraging behavior and shark migration in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

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Expedition Cuba Part 2: Scientists Partner with Fishermen to Explore Cuban Waters

The tuna fishing crew meets up with the research team in the Gulf of Batabanó.

By: Valerie Miller & Kendra Karr

Part II of a blog series reporting on the February 2013 Research Expedition in Cuba organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark teams and funded by the Waitt Foundation. A team of scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. along with EDF staff set sail on an exploratory research cruise to share knowledge, scientific methodologies and to survey shark populations in Cuba. The tri-national expedition was led by Cuban scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and U.S. scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

In early February the team of researchers boarded the RV Felipe Poey and departed the south coast of Cuba for the Gulf of Batabanó.  The nine-day expedition was designed to monitor shark populations, collect baseline data on plankton and benthic communities and train scientists in data collection techniques for future monitoring.  It took the entire first day to steam to the Isle of Youth.   By the evening the smooth waters and night sky had blended into one endless black landscape. As a sense of isolation set-in, the boat turned towards some lights in the distance – which emanated from a lobster station floating in the middle of the Gulf.  After a day crossing the ocean with no land in sight, it felt strange stepping off the boat and onto the deck at the station. The lobster fishermen, friends of the Cuban scientists, showed us around the facility which stores their daily catch in pens.  This moonlight meeting was just the first of many productive interactions with fishermen throughout the journey.

Collaboration is key for shark monitoring

Tapping the expertise of local fishermen was central to accomplishing the objectives of the expedition in relation to both data collection and training. The entire team learned about shark capture and tagging methods, but since the techniques had never been implemented to monitor populations in the Gulf, we relied on fishermen’s knowledge to locate sharks. We were fortunate to come across a Bonito tuna boat on multiple occasions. The tuna fishermen track sharks to locate schools of tuna and sometimes use the sharks to corral multiple schools together and cast their bamboo fishing rods to selectively catch tuna. Fishermen are able to identify sharks from notches they have previously marked in their fins.  One fisherman declared, “without sharks, there is no tuna fishery.”

On one occasion we tied our boats to together, which allowed Dr. Jorge Angulo, the lead Cuban scientist and CIM director, to catch up with the Bonito’s captain.  The old friends were happy to see each other again, and discussed where sharks are congregating in the Gulf.  The captain suggested that we explore “Los Indios,” a region off the Isle of Youth.  We ventured to Los Indios the following day to set our gear. The scientists agreed that this “edge” habitat where the reef meets the sand was more likely to have sharks, whereas much of the Gulf is shallow open water with a soft sediment bottom seafloor, not the usual preferred shark habitat.

Scientist Anmari Alvarez of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research discusses manatee monitoring with two finfish fishers.

Scientist Anmari Alvarez of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research discusses manatee monitoring with two finfish fishers.

A day’s catch sparks conversation on sharks

Along with the tuna fishermen, we also met up with a finfish fishing boat. In the mornings, the fishermen picked up researchers to help retrieve the nets set the day before and assess the catch. We all reunited in the afternoon; the fishermen’s catch displayed on the deck—a mix of rays and fish—and the researchers had the opportunity to collect data and take genetic samples of the species of interest.   Dr. Bob Hueter, head shark researcher from Mote Marine Laboratory, used a hammerhead shark caught that day to impart some shark anatomy lessons.  Researchers and fishermen were quizzed on their biological knowledge and helped take genetic samples that could potentially connect Cuba’s sharks to known populations in other regions of the Gulf of Mexico.

Our crew and the fishermen dispersed between the two decks of the connected boats to discuss the day’s work and shark habitat in the Gulf. While the fishermen we met do not direct their fishing towards sharks, they sometimes catch them as bycatch. One fisherman mentioned that they used to catch sharks more often in certain regions but believe that they have been overfished. The scientists agreed that the extent of overfishing is difficult to know since there is so little historical data on sharks in the Gulf.

Learning from the experience of the fishermen, our group hypothesized about the shark populations — preferred habitats, seasonal migration patterns and potential locations of nursery habitats. EDF’s tri-national shark conservation program is essential to improve the monitoring of shark populations in Cuba and ensuring that species are managed sustainably.

 

Unexpected opportunities in marine conservation

While the main objectives of the expedition focused on understanding shark populations in the Gulf, our interactions with the fishermen included discussions on a variety of marine life. Anmari Alvarez, a Cuban scientist who specializes in manatees, always takes the opportunity to talk about the marine mammal with fishermen. She reviewed a colorful flyer with the details on how fishermen can report a manatee sighting and explained that involving fishermen in monitoring is invaluable to her, as she cannot be in the Gulf every day. In one unexpected opportunity for collaboration, the finfish crew presented the Cuban researchers with a tag they removed from a sea turtle. They had been saving it for months, not knowing to whom to report the inscribed number. It just so happened that the tag was marked with the abbreviation for Quitana Roo, Mexico, and Ivan Mendez, a scientist from Mexico, was on-board to recover it.

Like scientists everywhere, the Cuban researchers’ monitoring efforts rely on data from fishermen’s catch. They have recently expanded their monitoring of shark landings at several ports along the north coast but have fewer resources to collect shark data in the Gulf of Batabanó. The bonds between the fishermen and scientists proved particularly important for this exploration—from sharing knowledge of shark habitats to a bi-national turtle tag exchange. There remains much to learn about shark populations in Cuba and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Our research team is now better prepared to collect and organize shark data and looks forward to partnering with fishermen in future expeditions.

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Expedition Cuba: A Tri-National Journey to Share Science and Survey Sharks, Part 1

Shark researchers from Cuba, Mexico, &  the U.S. capture a bull shark in the Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba.

Shark researchers from Cuba, Mexico, & the U.S. capture a bull shark in the Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba. (From L to R: Pedro Reyes and Alexei Ruiz of the Center for Marine Research – Cuba, Jack Morris of Mote Marine Laboratory – USA) Photo Credit: Valerie Miller

 

By: Kendra Karr & Valerie Miller

Intro by Dan Whittle: With generous support from the Waitt Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has launched a new initiative to support collaborative field research with scientists from the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research. This initiative is enabling teams of Cuban, U.S. and Mexican scientists to carry out a series of scientific expeditions to conduct important new research on Cuba's remarkable—but understudied—marine and coastal ecosystems. This effort will also support year-round port sampling of shark fishery landings at Cuban ports, contributing to EDF’s overarching tri-national shark conservation efforts throughout the Gulf of Mexico.  

On our inaugural expedition in February 2013, our tri-national team embarked on a research cruise off of Cuba's south coast in the Gulf of Batabanó to share knowledge and scientific methods, and to survey migratory shark populations. The expedition was organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark conservation programs and led on-the-water by scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida; with participation by a scientist from Mexico’s College of the Southern Frontier (ECOSUR).

Results from this expedition will be highlighted in a 3 part blog series. Today’s post focuses on sharing science in data-limited shark fisheries.  It will be followed by stories about the partnership of fishermen and scientists and baseline data.  Join the journey here and follow along this week!

Map, Gulf of Batabano

Expedition Location – Gulf of Batabanó & Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth)

The Story behind Sharks

Sharks are top predators, critical for maintaining the health and resilience of marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, some shark populations are in trouble, primarily because more sharks are fished than are reproduced.  Across the Gulf of Mexico, migratory animals such as sharks, tunas and others are an important source of food and economic activity.  Sharks are threatened by overfishing and some populations in the Gulf of Mexico are estimated to have declined over 90% in the last 25 years.[1]

Because they are migratory, many shark species traverse political boundaries. This makes monitoring their population status difficult and presents challenges to maintaining healthy stocks and rebuilding depleted ones. Many shark fisheries are considered “data-limited,” with little available information to assess the stock, including basic statistics covering reproduction, life span, migrations, abundance, and amount landed — both from targeted fishing and accidental catch – known as bycatch.

Eighty percent of all fisheries biomass and the vast majority of stocks in most countries are data poor.  Fortunately, scientific techniques exist to help assess fisheries with minimal data. EDF’s Oceans science team is advancing assessment methods that use easily gathered data or pre-existing information. The key to assessing data-limited fisheries is to have access to any available fishery data (for example, catch at sea or at a landing site) or to fishery independent surveys (for example, monitoring of shark size, sex and abundance). Depending on the method used, a data-limited assessment estimates the current population’s sustainable catch, risk of overfishing, or stock status – how healthy the stock is at current fishing levels. The first step to take advantage of these new data-limited assessment methods is to pull together any available data and improve monitoring.

Although some shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico are well studied and the U.S. has conducted comprehensive assessments, more data is needed on migratory shark species throughout the region.  EDF and our partners are taking the first steps to help determine the status of populations. Toward this end, EDF established a tri-national partnership for monitoring and management of shark fisheries among scientists in Cuba, Mexico and the United States. Scientists are working together to collect and organize information on shark catches from fishing ports and aboard fishing vessels, as well as conducting biological monitoring surveys across a diverse array of habitats apart from shark fishery catch. The partnership has reached agreement with INAPESCA, Mexico’s national fisheries research institute, to standardize shark monitoring methods across all of its Gulf States. Scientists from Cuba’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) are building a shark database and working with partners in Mexico to incorporate their data. All of these steps will aid in future assessments, setting conservation goals and sustaining populations and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. These efforts are the backbone of a successful shark recovery program. Read More »

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NOAA Releases Gulf of Mexico 2010 Red Snapper IFQ Annual Report

Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper

Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service recently released the Gulf of Mexico 2010 Red Snapper Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) Annual Report, and it provides a wealth of data and information collected during the fourth year of the IFQ program.  The report comes as the 5-year review of the IFQ is underway, and offers us a chance to use the latest data to evaluate the success of the program.

By all counts, the IFQ has been a success.  Back in 2006 when the Gulf Council was considering various management options in the red snapper fishery, fishermen had a short season each year, and had to go out even in dangerous conditions. The markets were flooded with fish for a short period of the year (and fishermen got low prices for their fish), and since the fishermen couldn't decide when, where, or how to fish, they had excessive bycatch of red snapper and everything else.  And to top it all off, they ended up going over quota anyway.

Then in 2007, the IFQ brought in a new way of doing things.  After getting approved overwhelmingly by local fishermen in not one but two referendums, the IFQ brought flexibility and stability to the fishing industry.  Fishing days increased from an average of 77 days before catch shares to 365 days a year.  Catch shares improved the stability of fishing employment; they allowed vessel owners the opportunity to provide full time jobs to qualified captains and deckhands, without the variability that results from short seasons.   In contrast, recreational fishermen only had 53 days to fish for red snapper (not including lost days due to the oil spill) under traditional management in 2010, and only 48 days in 2011. Read More »

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The Gulf of Mexico – The Fishermen's Success Story

Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper

Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper

If you read Food and Water Watch’s recently published report on the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper fishery, you may be wondering why EDF is so supportive of catch shares as a tool for fishery managers. The report paints a pretty bleak picture for fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. We could spend an entire blog post devoted to addressing the report’s flawed statistics and manufactured conclusions, or we can just tell you the story of the red snapper fishery and how it went from near closure to a rebuilding fishery on the path of recovery.

Anyone who grew up in a coastal community and who has seen the fishing industry struggle under the weight of restrictions and regulations understands the devastating impacts of size limits, trip limits, and short seasons.  Traditional management has been crushing both large and smaller scale fishermen to the point where their livelihoods – their ability to provide for their families – has been threatened.  Catch shares offer them a way out, and a choice.

When catch shares were being debated in the Gulf Council in 2006, fishermen came to the table to design them.  All fishermen who wanted to participate, could participate – the Council process provided plenty of access through Council meetings, Advisory Panels, public comment periods, and hearings.  Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which Congress passed as the fisheries law-of-the land, fishermen were guaranteed a referendum (red snapper got two!) to vote a catch share up or down.  That means the fishermen who historically made a living from fishing got the chance to decide how best to manage their fishery themselves. Read More »

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Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Nesting Season is Here Again

Kemp's Ridley Hatchling

Kemp's Ridley Hatchling

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting season is here again, and I'm happy to report that nest numbers are well on their way to beating last year’s number!  While the Kemp's ridleys have the lowest population of all sea turtles, they have begun a huge come back in recent years.

Until half a century ago, tens of thousands of Kemp’s ridleys would surge onto Mexico’s Gulf of Mexico beaches in a few large nesting events each year to lay their eggs. At the turn of the 20th century, turtle meat and eggs became popular delicacies, causing the turtle’s population to crash.  Later, accidental catches in fishing gears kept their population down.   Read more about the turtle’s history and steps taken in recent years to help the Kemps ridleys population recover.

Today, Kemp's ridleys are rebounding due in part to protections that government, fishing industry and EDF and other conservation groups helped win.  In Mexico, the numbers are up from 700 in 1985 to more than 12,000 nests in 2010.  In Texas, the nests have climbed from 1 in 1978 to a high of 197 in 2009 due to extraordinary steps taken to establish a secondary nesting site at Padre Island National Seashore.

This year’s total already stands at 85 nests (in just eighteen days of recording findings) and is on track to surpass last year’s number.  Check back at the end of the summer for an update!  At this time, it is hard to know what impacts the BP oil disaster may have had on the population.  Kemp’s ridleys don't return to nest until after the age of seven years old, so the fate of last year’s hatchlings will remain unknown for several years.

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