Protection of Sea Turtles: Background

April 20, 2010 marked the beginning of what is considered by many to be the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history - the day the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico fifty miles off the coast of Venice, Louisiana. Leased to British Petroleum (BP), the Deepwater Horizon rig was considered one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world. After exploding, it sank in 5,000 feet of water, and the ensuing sea floor oil gusher from the uncapped well wreaked havoc in the Gulf and surrounding coastal areas.

Not long after efforts to clean up some of the spilled oil began, the Animal Welfare Institute received word that sea turtles in the Gulf were being burned alive incident to the controlled fires BP was employing in its cleanup efforts. Shrimp boats were dragging together fire-resistant booms, and then igniting the enclosed "burn box" - trapping some turtles inside. The sea turtle species most affected by the oil spill and fires - the Kemp’s ridley - is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. § 1540(g).

On June 30, pursuant to the citizen suit provisions of the ESA and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (43 U.S.C. § 1349(a)(2)(A)), the Animal Welfare Institute along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Turtle Island and Restoration Network, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against BP, alleging multiple violations of law in connection with their containment activities and the resultant impact on endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. The animal welfare and conservation groups later amended their complaint to include the U.S. Coast Guard as a defendant for its role in directing BP's containment activities.

The ESA prohibits any activity that "takes" a species listed as endangered. This includes any acts that "harm, wound, injure, harass, or kill" an endangered species. The lawsuit alleged that the endangered sea turtles who live in the Gulf of Mexico were being caught in the "burn boxes" created by the corralling of oil and then burned alive or otherwise harmed or harassed.

On July 2, the parties reached an interim agreement stipulating that BP and the Coast Guard would institute standard protocols for sea turtle observation and rescue in the Gulf of Mexico in order to eliminate or minimize any adverse impacts of containment activities on the turtles. The following day, an emergency meeting was held with representatives of the parties and scientists to discuss the methods being employed by the Coast Guard and how such methods could be altered to enhance the protection of sea turtles.

On July 4, the Coast Guard released its protocols for the protection of endangered sea turtles during burn operations for the remainder of the oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. These protocols, or "Best Management Practices," call for trained observers to be present during the oil corralling process to search for any sea turtles caught in burn boxes. Prior to ignition of oil, all sea turtles found in burn boxes are to be removed by qualified rescue personnel, who are to accompany the burn task force. All live turtles retrieved are to be taken to an onshore facility for cleaning and rehabilitation.