The world’s most imperiled sea turtle faces frequent threats: poaching, shrimp nets, storms and an assortment of predators, including coyotes and raccoons.
“Because Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world, every egg matters,” said Christopher Marshall, director of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research at Texas A&M University at Galveston, which runs the conservation program.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, the smallest sea turtles in the world, were common before facing a dramatic drop-off in population in the mid-20th century. Those that are left help maintain the balance of their marine ecosystems by eating blue crab and shells on the ocean floor. The Kemp’s ridley is also the state sea turtle of Texas.
The newly discovered eggs are now at an incubation facility off the coast of Corpus Christi, where conservationists can protect them before delivering the hatched turtles back to the Gulf of Mexico. The eggs are safer there than they would be on the beach, where storms and high tides exacerbated by climate change threaten their survival. Eggs left on beaches have about a 45 percent chance of successfully hatching, Marshall said, while the probability can reach 95 percent in an incubator.
Conservationists can also control the sex of hatching turtles when the nests are kept in incubation facilities. Warmer nests tend to produce more females, while cooler temperatures usually result in more males. That knowledge means scientists can intentionally produce more females that in turn will lay eggs, Marshall said.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were abundant in the 1940s, when roughly 40,000 were documented on a nesting beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. Four decades later, poaching and fisheries bycatch — the accidental capture of one species while trawling for another — had caused the recorded population to drop to less than 250 nesting females.
“We almost lost the species to extinction,” Marshall said.
Intense conservation efforts began, including increasing the number of nesting beaches and protecting nests from poaching with armed guards. Commercial fishermen in the United States are also now required to add turtle excluder devices, escape hatches for turtles, to their shrimp nets.
Those strategies enabled the number of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests to increase rapidly from the 1990s until 2010, when the number of nests began to fluctuate. Roughly 5,500 females now nest in Mexico and an additional 55 nest in Texas each year, the National Park Service estimates.
Galveston Island State Park, where the new eggs were found, is a fitting nesting ground.
“It represents a critical need for the species to have quiet beaches that are of good quality, and the Galveston Island State Park still has that,” Marshall said. “And I think that’s becoming more rare on the upper Texas coast.”
During nesting season, which runs from early April to mid-July, adult female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles return to a beach near where they were born decades earlier. They dig chambers in the sand and typically lay about 100 eggs, which incubate for roughly 50 days.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles engage in arribada nesting, where groups of them come out of the water together to nest simultaneously as a defense against predators. The more baby sea turtles there are, Marshall said, the lower the chances that predators will eat them all before they reach the water.
Helping as many of these turtles as possible to survive is critical at a time when conservationists are fighting to keep the species alive.
“This species has been with us for 140 [million], 160 million years, and we’re the ones responsible for almost sending it to extinction in the 1980s,” Marshall said. “So it’s up to us to intervene and help bring this species back to a viable population level.”