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3 years ago

World’s most endangered sea turtle species in big trouble off Alabama’s coast

Sea-Turtle-feature

By Katherine Shonesy

Newly examined video of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which are found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, shows that the species’ recovery from endangerment has stalled at less than one-tenth of historic nesting levels.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham came to that conclusion after being tasked with identifying the qualifying measure of endangerment for the species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

Kemp’s ridley turtles are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The species was on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, but a Mexico-U.S. binational conservation program initiated in 1978 was able to reverse its decline.

The decades of intense conservation efforts were evident by 2009, with the Kemp’s ridley exhibiting an exponential recovery rate that was expected to continue for many years. However, an unanticipated downturn occurred in 2010 when the amount of nesting dropped significantly, and since that time, the species has not regained an upward trajectory to recovery.

How many Kemp’s ridley turtles should there be in the gulf? Scientists and conservationists weren’t sure; there was a lack of data between 1880, when the species was discovered, and the start of the conservation efforts in 1978.

UAB’s study, led by Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and doctoral student Elizabeth Bevan, set out to answer that question through the evaluation of a historic film recorded in 1947 by Andres Herrera, a Mexican sportsman, on the Kemp’s ridley’s primary nesting beach in the western Gulf of Mexico near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico.

The film captured a mass-nesting event known as an arribada, involving tens of thousands of nesting turtles on a single day in 1947. It would help provide a rare benchmark for evaluating the historic population size of a species prior to its becoming endangered, which is usually not available for endangered species.

Uncovering the original riddle of the ridley

Prior to the film, the location of the Kemp’s ridley nesting grounds was a mystery. After hearing about a large mass nesting of sea turtles from locals, Herrera recognized the significance of such a unique biological phenomenon and became committed to documenting this unique event for society.

During a two-year period, Herrera flew his own plane 33 times over the Gulf Coast north of Tampico, Mexico, conducting aerial surveys in search of the mass sea turtle nesting. In 1947, he finally uncovered the event, but his discovery would remain unknown to the scientific community for more than a dozen years.

“At the time of the film’s development, no one was able to connect the dots between the phenomenon of the mass nesting and that the nests belonged to the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles,” Wibbels said. “Herrera was a hobby enthusiast who wasn’t aware of the pursuit in the scientific world to uncover this location. Meanwhile, Archie Carr, who was considered to be the world’s leading sea turtles expert, had been searching for the nesting beaches for this species for decades.”

Carr searched for the Kemp’s ridley nesting beaches in all of the usual nesting regions – Florida, the Caribbean and the northern Gulf of Mexico; but after 20 years, he had found nothing.

“He had no logical explanation for the fact that this abundant turtle was seemingly not breeding or nesting,” Bevan said. “Scientists began to wonder whether the Kemp’s ridley could actually be a hybrid turtle.”

The dots were finally connected, and part of the mystery debunked, by Henry Hildebrand, Ph.D., from the University of Corpus Christi, who heard about the film and viewed it in 1961. Later that year, Hildebrand presented that film at the annual meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, revealing the news to the scientific community for the first time.

Breaking down the nesting numbers

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It was estimated by some who viewed the original black-and-white footage that there were more than 40,000 nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles on the beach that day. Wibbels and Bevan’s recent study reflects more conservative, but still remarkable, numbers.

Wibbels and Bevan calculate that there were 26,000 sea turtles on a 1- to 2-mile stretch of beach on the day the film was taken.

The results from UAB’s study published this week indicate that about 120,000 to 180,000 nests were laid over the entire 1947 nesting season in contrast to about 14,000 nests in the most recent nesting season.

This new information on the historic population size greatly increases the mystery surrounding the abrupt decline in the recovery of this endangered species since 2009. The number of nests laid in the 2015 nesting season represents a 34 percent decline in comparison to 2009, and this occurred during a time when exponential growth of the population back toward historic levels was expected.

What this means for conservation

Intense conservation efforts are continuing, and this critically endangered species is protected throughout its range.

“Because the Kemp’s ridley is so protected, scientists believe that potential factors limiting its recovery may be habitat-related,” Bevan said. “Another hypothesis among the field is that environmental pollution, in particular the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, may have significantly impacted the population, and many years may be required before the species regains an exponential recovery rate.”

An alternative hypothesis is that the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem may have changed over the past seven decades since the Herrera film was recorded, and can no longer support the abundance of Kemp’s ridleys documented in the 1947 film. For example, studies have shown that the abundance of blue crabs, a preferred food item for the Kemp’s ridley, has significantly declined in the northern Gulf of Mexico in recent decades.

“The Kemp’s ridley could be significantly impacted by long-term changes and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem because of its near exclusivity to the area and presence as a higher-trophic-level predator,” Bevan said. “That’s why it’s so important that we continue our research into the mystery of its stalled growth.”

“Solving the mystery will require continued monitoring of turtles on the nesting beach, a better understanding of the ecology of the Kemp’s ridley in its foraging and developmental habitats, and an evaluation of potential changes in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem since the 1947 Herrera film,” Wibbels added.

Wibbels’ and Bevan’s work was published in Ecosphere this month.

1 hour ago

Auburn Police officer shot in the line of duty

An Auburn Police Department officer was shot in the line of duty Friday evening.

Sources reportedly confirmed the shooting to WVTM. The condition of the officer was not immediately known.

The shooting occurred at the Dollar General near Niffer’s Place off of Opelika Road.

WSFA was on the scene live in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which resulted in a massive police presence. The suspect is believed to still be at-large, with a “manhunt” underway.

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This comes after Birmingham Police Department Sgt. Wytasha Carter and Mobile Police Department Officer Sean Tuder were shot and killed in the line of duty in recent weeks.

This is breaking news and may be updated.

Update 8:00 p.m.:

WSFA posted a new live stream.

Update 8:15 p.m.:

Police administrators told reporters the incident occurred shortly after 5:30 p.m. as the officer pulled the suspect’s vehicle over responding to an armed robbery call. The officer was talking and alert when he left the scene. More on his condition was not released by law enforcement on the scene. The officer was shot “multiple” times. His name has also not been released.

The suspect is Christopher James Wallace. He is 38 years old. A female was in the vehicle with Wallace at the time of the shooting. Her name is not being released at this time.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

Del Marsh on Trump declaration: ‘It is an emergency — It is about protecting this country’

Alabama Senate leader Del Marsh (R-Anniston) voiced his support for President Donald Trump’s latest action on border security while blaming Democrats for their inability to fix the long-standing issue.

In an interview with Yellowhammer News, Marsh said he supports Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency along the Mexican border.

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Marsh explained that the urgency of the threat made it necessary.

“It is an emergency,” Marsh stated. “It is about protecting this country. That’s where the threat is. The threat is the southern border. All our borders should be secure. But the threat right now is the southern border. No one can deny that.”

When asked where border security should rank among the country’s priorities, Marsh said border security should be number one.

And he expressed frustration at how policy-makers have approached the issue.

“I cannot for the life of me understand how people in Congress can put people who are not citizens of this country above our citizens’ welfare, and that’s what I see happening,” he remarked.

He cited a single reason why, in his mind, the issue of border security has gone on for so long without resolution.

“Politics,” Marsh declared.

Specifically, he believes Democrats view illegal immigration as providing a pool of potential new voters and that has threatened national security.

“They have put that above the safety of the citizens of this country,” he said. “Democrats are basically saying, ‘Don’t worry about a process. Come on! We’re your buddies!’”

Marsh also pointed out the fact that he has already filed a bill in the Alabama legislature to allow Alabamians to help build the wall.

The legislation would provide taxpayers the option of checking a box on their tax returns should they want to donate to We Build the Wall, Inc.

Marsh has already donated to the fund himself.

“It’s about sending a message to this president, President Trump, that we support him and by sending these dollars to build the wall, showing our support for him,” he explained. “I believe it and I think the people of Alabama believe that security is the most important thing, the most important issue at this point in time. We want to support the wall, and we want to see the wall built.”

Tim Howe is an owner and editor of Yellowhammer News.

2 hours ago

Alabama Supreme Court reinstates Alabama Memorial Preservation Act

Attorney General Steve Marshall announced Friday that the Alabama Supreme Court has granted the state’s motion to stay a recent “[erroneous]” Jefferson County Circuit Court judgment that declared the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 to be unconstitutional.

This means the law, which prohibits the removal and alteration of monuments more than 40 years old on public property, will still be in effect while the state appeals the decision. Marshall requested the stay three weeks ago.

“I am pleased that the Alabama Supreme Court has granted the State’s motion to stay the Circuit Court’s ruling,” the attorney general said in a statement. “We think that U.S. Supreme Court precedent clearly demonstrates that the Circuit Court erred in striking down the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. Thus, we asked the Alabama Supreme Court to preserve the status quo regarding the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Linn Park until the Court rules on our appeal.”

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It was reported that the City of Birmingham was considering removing the monument at the center of the controversy after the law was struck down. The Sailors Monument has been covered by a large black wall since August 2017, near the end of former Mayor William Bell’s tenure.

“The Supreme Court’s stay allows the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act to remain in effect until the Supreme Court resolves this appeal over the Act’s constitutionality. We continue to hold that the Circuit Court erred when it ruled that the U.S. Constitution grants cities free speech rights that they can enforce against the State,” Marshall added. “For more than a century, the U.S. Supreme Court has held just the opposite, recognizing that ‘a political subdivision, created by the state for the better ordering of government, has no privileges or immunities under the federal constitution which it may invoke in opposition to the will of its creator.’ We look forward to presenting these arguments to the Alabama Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court’s order Friday also stayed the accrual of any financial penalties under the law.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

David Cole departs Alabama Farmers Federation for BCA

The Business Council of Alabama (BCA) is adding another star to its governmental affairs team.

Shortly after breaking BCA’s hiring of Molly Cagle from Manufacture Alabama, sources confirmed to Yellowhammer News that Alabama Farmers Federation Director of State Affairs David Cole is coming on board at the same time.

Cole, like Cagle, is joining BCA’s governmental affairs staff effective February 28, just in time for the March 5 start of the state legislative session. Most recently, Cole spearheaded the federation’s lobbying efforts in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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Sources confirmed to Yellowhammer News Friday that federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan sent out an email announcing Cole’s departure and thanking him for his commitment to Alabama agriculture — the state’s biggest industry. Pinyan also outlined how the staff would be moved around in response to Cole leaving.

Director of External Affairs Matthew Durdin – and his staff members, Director of Agricultural Legislation Preston Roberts and administrative assistant Jessica Mims – will now be involved in some state governmental affairs work. Former Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman, who has been working as a political consultant for the federation, will now add governmental affairs work on contract.

An official announcement with details of the federation’s staff changes is expected to be released in the coming week.

Update, 6:15 p.m.:

BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt announced the two major additions in an internal email sent out to the business council’s leadership Friday evening. Britt took the reigns of BCA January 2. Cagle and Cole are her first hires.

The email detailed that Cole is being named senior vice president of governmental affairs and Cagle vice president of governmental affairs.

“These two additions to our team position the BCA to serve our members and advocate effectively on behalf of the business community,” Britt wrote.

Mark Colson, who most recently filled in as BCA’s interim president after serving as chief of staff and senior vice president for governmental affairs, will continue to serve the organization in his new role as senior advisor through the transition period.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

6 hours ago

Molly Cagle joining BCA from Manufacture Alabama

One of Alabama’s rising stars in the governmental affairs world is on the move.

Sources confirmed to Yellowhammer News Friday that Manufacture Alabama (MA) Director of External Affairs Molly Cagle has accepted a governmental affairs position with the Business Council of Alabama (BCA). While an exact title has yet to be released, Cagle is expected to bolster BCA’s legislative affairs team.

The hire marks the first in BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt’s tenure. She was hired by the organization’s executive committee in December and took office January 2.

Cagle’s last day at MA is February 20, according to an email from her to the association’s membership obtained by Yellowhammer News.

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“My time at Manufacture Alabama over the last four and a half years has been incredibly rewarding. The friendships, lessons, and advice are things that I cherish and will take with me throughout my career,” she wrote.

Cagle comes to BCA with an impressive track record in legislative work, including past service as the Senate Liaison for Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh. She received her bachelor’s in Political Science, with a minor in Broadcast Journalism, from Troy University.

Named to Yellowhammer Multimedia’s “Power and Influence: Who’s Next?” list for 2018, Cagle will be a major addition to BCA as the organization refocuses on its pro-jobs mission of “making a sweet home for business” in Alabama.

Cagle’s email noted, “As I prepare to take on my new role, I want to assure everyone that the staff at Manufacture Alabama has taken the steps to make my departure as seamless as possible. A special thank you to George Clark for his guidance and support not only over the last several years but also throughout this process.”

The state legislative session begins March 5.

As of Friday at 2:30 p.m., BCA had taken down its online staff directory. An official announcement of the hire is expected in the coming days.

Update, 6:15 p.m.:

Cagle is being named BCA’s vice president of governmental affairs.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn