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Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Rebound: A Short History

By Ryan Ono, Gulf Oceans Program Research and Outreach Associate

Until half a century ago, tens of thousands of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles would surge onto Mexican beaches in a few large nesting events to lay their eggs. (One was estimated having up to 40,000 turtles!)

But, at the turn of the 20th century turtle meat and eggs became popular delicacies, causing large numbers of turtles to be harvested at sea and many eggs to be gathered from beaches. Additionally in the 1940s and 1950s, numerous sea turtles were caught in the nets of the rapidly expanding shrimp fishery.

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These pressures caused the Kemp’s ridley population to crash – almost to the point of extinction, when nesting events would number only one or two thousand turtles.

In the 1960s and 1970s, joint U.S.-Mexican efforts to revive turtle populations re-established a secondary nesting site in the U.S. to protect the eggs from poaching and damage caused by humans.  Hatchery and “head-start” programs were also started. The head-start program raised turtles for a few years until they were big enough to be released into the wild – about the size of a dinner plate.

In the 1990s, EDF’s Michael Bean and Pam Baker helped the recovery effort by fighting for gear modifications to all shrimping boats called turtle excluder devices, or “TEDs,” which reduced the number of turtles caught.  They also worked for shrimping closures off the Texas coast during nesting seasons.

As recently as eight years ago the number of endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtle nests found on Texas shores numbered fewer than ten.  Since 2004 however, there have been consecutive record breaking years and in 2008 a total of 195 Kemp’s Ridley turtle nests were found. 

This year’s total stands currently at 154 nests and is on track to surpass last year’s number, with two months of the season left to go.  Check back at the end of the summer for an update! 

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