What Does It Take to Save a Sea Turtle on Turtle Island?

Kemp's ridley sea turtle

Photo: The Kemp's ridley sea turtle (National Park Service)

By Craig Nazor, Chapter Conservation Chair

To many Native Americans, North America was referred to as “Turtle Island.” In some indigenous creation myths, the continent itself was visualized as the shell of a large sea turtle adrift on the Earth’s ocean. 

Texas has the most turtle diversity of any state in the U.S., but one special turtle beat out all the others to become the state’s official turtle: the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle – the world’s most endangered. So in the heart of Turtle Island, here in Texas, what does it take to save a sea turtle?

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the smallest sea turtle, is actually “from” Mexico. In practice, sea turtles roam the oceans widely, and Kemp’s ridley is no exception – they roam all over the North Atlantic, wherever the water isn’t too cold. But originally, they were almost all born on just a very few beaches on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Unlike any other sea turtle, they nest during the day. To stymie predators, they would nest all at once, by the tens of thousands (it was called an “Arribada,” or “Arrival by sea”), on a cloudy summer day when the currents were right. Unfortunately, this adaptation against predators made them an easy target for humans. With eggs reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and with good meat, these turtle Arribadas were the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle’s undoing. In the 1940s, this sea turtle’s numbers plummeted drastically.

So a deal was struck between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexico would better protect their turtle nesting grounds, and eggs would be collected, hatched, and then released on the Texas coast to see if a new nesting colony could be established as a backup to the Mexican colony. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were declared endangered, and the program to save them was launched. The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle program was set up at Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS), which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) (though the original stewards of Padre Island were the Malaquites, a band of the Karankawa people).

This program, called the Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Program (STSRP), has been operating for years with great success. The turtles, after being released from PAIS, are returning and nesting. To increase the number that survive their very risk-filled hatchling year, turtle eggs are collected from the beach, incubated, and the hatchlings released in a protected situation. This program relies on carefully controlled beach driving to identify the nests and collect the eggs. This program also assists other species of threatened sea turtles.

The public releases have become VERY popular events – there were 25 public releases per year in recent years, with each release attended by 1,500 to 2,000 people. Each release was preceded by an excellent educational lecture by one of the top Kemp’s ridley sea turtle scientists in the world, Dr. Donna Shaver, who is in charge of the program at PAIS. The numbers of sea turtle nesting returns at PAIS increased, and the STSRP won awards and gathered competitive grants to help keep it funded.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affected all sea turtles. Since that time, the number of nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles at PAIS has more or less stagnated. Why? We don’t know for sure. But given the increased oil exploration, increased plastic pollution, increasing chemical water pollution, more desalination plants dumping salt into coastal waters, worsening climate change – all current realities of the Texas coast – there are lots of possibilities as to why turtle numbers may not be recovering. The one thing we know for sure is that the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is not out of the woods yet, and increasing the number of turtles released is the one thing we know is likely to give the species a better chance to survive. The STSRP continues to be more important than ever.

The other big factor in this story is beach driving. The land for the Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS) was donated under the assumption that there would be public access. The only reasonable way to allow public access to most beach areas at PAIS is through beach driving, which is why beach driving has been used to help the STSRP to succeed. Many of the National Seashores are located on the East Coast where beach driving is generally not allowed, and the history, topography, and infrastructure allow this to to be a workable constraint. The history, topography and infrastructure in Texas, not to mention Texas state laws about beach access, make disallowing beach driving a hornet’s nest of controversy here.

In a perfect world, people would have access to beaches without having to drive on them. But the Texas coast is currently a good bit distant from that perfect world. In 2011, a National Environmental Policy Act “Finding of No Significant Impact” (or NEPA FONSI for short) was done on the current controls put on beach driving at PAIS, which continue to be very important to identifying nests and collecting eggs, as well as other activities such as sport fishing, beach camping, and surfing. Everyone appeared to be in agreement over the new rules for beach driving in 2011, along with the NEPA finding of no significant impact. But then PAIS got a new Park Superintendent – Eric Brunnemann.

Superintendent Brunnemann has a history of changing (some would say dismantling) endangered species programs in National Parks. When he came to PAIS in 2019, the first thing he did was a Review of the STSRP at PAIS.

Since this Review was made, dramatic cuts have been applied to the STSRP… some would call it a near dismantling of the program.

So what has changed? The most noticeable change has been that public sea turtle releases were reduced from 25 per year to 5 per year, and the educational lectures have been completely stopped. This has had a stark impact on the local economy, as visitors to these releases have dropped from approximately 43,700 per year to 8,700 per year. The releases happen early in the morning, and the only access to PAIS is through Corpus Christi. Visitors usually spend the night before the releases at lodging in Corpus Christi, eating meals in Corpus Christi, with frequent visits to the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi. With approximately 30,000+ fewer visitors per year, that’s an economic hit to Corpus Christi, not to mention the reduced number of turtle beach patrols driving up and down the beach.

Another devastating, unmeasurable impact is the removal of the education program. If this planet is to be saved, more children need to be taught the importance of ALL of Earth’s ecosystems. Charismatic animals, such as sea turtles, capture the imagination of young people. In fact, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle became the official state sea turtle of Texas in 2013 thanks to the efforts of 4th grade students at Oppe Elementary School in Galveston, guided by science teacher Katie Blaser. 

Enter the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. We have organized a stakeholder group, mostly from the Corpus Christi area, to question the cuts made to this program. This group includes local politicians, environmentalists, STSRP volunteers, scientists, business leaders, and Sierra Club leaders. 

After a few meetings, it has become apparent that the National Park Service so far has not wanted to admit the STSRP has been cut. We believe this is because they want to do a new NEPA study to reduce beach driving further. But NEPA says that you can’t “cut” a program and then do a study – you have to do the study FIRST, which makes sense if the results are to be unbiased. So that’s where the situation currently stands.

We could use your help! There is a Facebook page that is sending letters to the NPS to support the continuation of the STSRP at full force. If you contact them, they will print and send a letter in your name to the National Park Service. Here is the link: