NOAA updates treaty with Mexico to help Kemp's ridley turtles

U.S. agencies announced an updated plan with Mexico today to strengthen conservation and recovery efforts for the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle that lives primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and does most of its nesting on a beach in Mexico.

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updated the 1992 plan with Mexican environmental officials and made the announcement today that if the population growth of the turtle continues at the current rates, scientists think Kemp’s ridleys may reach 40,000 nesting females per season for six years by the year 2024. That's what's required to get the animal off the endangered species list.

“We are seeing results,” said Eric Schwaab, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries. “Cooperation among government agencies, fishermen, local communities and ocean users is the key to continuing our success, and this new updated plan will help us to continue in our efforts to save this species. We are well on our way, but we still have a long way to go.”

Benjamin Tuggle, Fish and Wildlife regional director, said how effectively the countries have been able to work together was demonstrated this year when a record number of nests were identified on the Texas coast and about 9,000 Kemp’s ridleys were seen on the main nesting beach on the northeast coast of Mexico.

Since the mid-1980s, scientists have documented an approximate 15 percent increase in Kemp’s ridley nests each year, NOAA said. It said the Kemp's ridley, once the most imperiled of all the sea turtle species, is close to meeting a major recovery criteria for downlisting from endangered to threatened.

Moby Solangi, with the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, wasn't quite as optimistic. He said it will take a lot of hard work to get the Kemp's ridley population up that high consistently. He said it will take more than blaming fishermen and shrimpers.

"And you need a lot more research and data proving that the animal has recovered," Solangi said. "These treaties are a good thing and I'm happy that there's a multi-national effort."

But he said currently NOAA has no hard core population figures for the Kemp's ridley. Those numbers are officially called abundance data. And NOAA has said it doesn't have abundance data for the Kemp's ridley.

Kemp's ridleys face threats on both nesting beaches and in the water. NOAA contends that the primary threat is fishing and shrimp trawls, gill nets, longlines, traps and pots and fishing dredges.

The recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill affected critically important offshore habitats for young Kemp’s ridleys, NOAA said, and many were directly exposed to oil.

The long-term effects of this oil spill are not yet known but are of concern for the species recovery. Egg collection by locals for food was an extreme threat to the population, but since nesting beaches were afforded official protection by Mexico in 1966, this threat no longer poses a major concern, NOAA said.