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Kemp's Ridley sea turtle

The Kemp's Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) nests only in the Gulf of Mexico [6]. Historical nesting areas are not well known, but have likely always been centered in Mexico. Even less is known about historic population numbers, but as late as 1947, over 40,000 females nested in a single day on one beach in Mexico. Collection of turtle eggs, development of nesting beaches, commercial fisheries by-catch and oil extraction pushed the species to near extinction by the 1970s.
Kemp's Ridley sea turtle was extirpated from the U.S. as a breeding species by the 1950s, though it continued to forage in U.S. waters along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic. In 1978, an international, multi-agency project began to reestablish a nesting colony at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas [5]. From 1978-1988, 22,507 eggs were transported from Mexico for incubation and imprinting on the sands and surf of the National Seashore. Most hatchlings were transported to a National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory where they were raised away from predators for 9-11 months. They were then released into the Gulf of Mexico, where it was hoped that they would return to nest on the sands where they were imprinted. The program proved controversial at first, due to setbacks and little nesting success between 1979 and 1994, but nest counts began to steadily increase in 1995, reaching a high of 101 in 2006 [1, 7].
As of 2006, 60% of Texas nesting occurs in Padre Island National Seashore [1], with the remainder occurring at seven additional sites: Bolivar Peninsula, Galveston Island, near Surfside (Brazoria County), Mustang Island, South Padre Island, Boca Chica Beach, and Aransas/Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge [1, 10]. Nesting turtle returned to Matagorda Island, Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2005 (3 nests) and continued to nest in 2006 (4 nests), and 2007 (4 nests confirmed as of 05/22/2007) [10]. Very small, sporadic nesting efforts occur in Alabama, Florida and South Carolina. In 1999, single nests were found on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama and on the Gulf Island's National Seashore in Perdido Key, Florida [3]. In 2001, a single hatchling was found at Bon Secour and a nest was found at Gulf Shores’ West End Beach, AL [2, 3].
The vast majority of Kemp’s ridley turtles nest on a single beach near Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The Mexico population declined from over 40,000 nests in 1947 to 740 in 1985 before steadily climbing to 10,099 in 2005 and over 11,000 in 2006 [4, 8, 9]. The increase was facilitated by habitat protection, prohibition and education about egg collection, and the requirement that turtle excluder devices be used by U.S. and Mexican shrimp fishing fleets in the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to their use, the fleet killed 500-5,000 turtles annually [6].
Some experts believe that the species may qualify for downlisting to threatened status by 2012 [9].
[1] Padre Island National Park. 2006. The Kemp's Ridley sea turtle. U.S. National Park Service website (www.nps.gov/pais/naturescience/kridley.htm) visited August 26, 2006.
[2] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. World's Most Endangered Sea Turtle Nest Discovered Along U.S. Coastline for Only Ninth Time This Year, August 17, 2001 press release. (http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2001/al01-001.html)
[3] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2002. Availability of an Environmental Assessment and Receipt of an Application for an Incidental Take Permit for FML81A, LLC, Fort Morgan Peninsula, Baldwin County, AL. May 9, 2002 (67 FR 31359).
[4] Turtle Expert Working Group.  2000. Assessment Update for the Kemp’s Ridley and Loggerhead Sea Turtle Populations in the Western North Atlantic. U.S. Dep. Commer. NOAA Tech. Mem. NMFS-SEFSC-444, 115 pp.
[5] Arroyo, B., P. Burchfield, L.J. Pena, L. Hodgson, and Pl Luevano. 2003. The Kemp's Ridley: recovery in the making Endangered Species Bulletin, May-June, 2003.
[6] NOA Fisheries. 2005. Kemp's Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) (www.nmfs.noaa.gov/prot_res/species/turtles/kemps.html)
[7] Padre Island National Park. 2006. Current sea turtle nesting season. U.S. National Park Service website (www.nps.gov/pais/naturescience/current-season.htm) visited August 26, 2006.
[8] Caribbean Conservation Corporation and Sea Turtle Survival League. 2006. Sea turtle species of the world. Website (www.cccturtle.org/species_world.htm) accessed January 23, 2006.
[9] Hanna, B. 2006. U.S.-Mexico effort pulls rare turtles from brink. Fort Worth Telegram-Star, July 6, 2006.
[10] Stinson, T. 2007. Personal communication with Tonya Stinson, Environmental Education Specialist, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex, May 22, 2007.
Banner photo © Phillip Colla