The ocean has a way of bringing things together. Its many sea currents dip, dive and swirl through the Gulf of Mexico delivering critical nutrients, plants, and animals exactly where they need to be. A baby turtle slips into the tide, one of only a few to survive the short, sandy trek from the nest to water. She is immediately picked up by one of these currents and astoundingly survives the saltwater superhighway out to the open ocean. There, vast mats of sargassum seaweed have also floated to this marine meeting place.
The Gulf is home to one of the most productive sargassum seaweed habitats in the world. These dark, red-brown floating algal habitats provide the food and shelter necessary for our little turtle to grow and develop alongside many other species of fish and microfauna. She has beat every odd traveling to her new home. But unfortunately, seaweed and juvenile turtles are not the only hitchhikers that ride the Gulf currents. Oil sneaks aboard the same paths and makes its way to the same open water habitats where ocean currents converge.
Oil in the water and on the seaweed islands can reduce the oxygen in the water or change its temperature, stressing the young turtle as she clings to it like a life raft. Chronic exposure to oil at the surface of the water can also injure our young turtle as she surfaces to breathe. She may have survived challenges from the sea, but what about those from humans?
Over the years, we’ve documented leaked oil from the Taylor Energy Company spill in and around the seaweed islands. The pollution of that habitat represents a potentially fatal experience for any other juvenile turtles who make their way there. And until recently, Taylor has denied their role in this ongoing environmental tragedy.
In 2004 hurricane Ivan destroyed several oil wells off the coast of Louisiana. Some of these wells, owned by Taylor, were not repaired and continue to spill today. Taylor claims that the oil is residual. Yet, recent ROV surveys confirmed two undersea plumes—far more oil than a residual release.
What’s more? Every time GRN flies over this location, we see the rainbow sheen slick for miles. Our partners at Skytruth have also been tracking the size and movement of the sheen over time. They estimate that somewhere between 855,000 and 4 million gallons of oil have spilled from the Taylor site between 2004 and 2017.
Paul Orr, of the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, says that "the Taylor Oil spill is emblematic of a broken system, where oil production is prioritized over concerns for human health and the environment." And although federal authorities have acknowledged this type of harm, specific response surveys must be designed to document the health of Gulf sea turtles and their rate of exposure. Coastal and open ocean habitats and the species who live there continue to be at risk. It is urgent that advocates assist agencies by documenting all impacts to wildlife.
According to the Waterkeeper Alliance, “a finding by government agencies that the Taylor oil spill cannot be abated raises serious questions about the nation's ability to manage the risks from deepwater drilling.” Expanded offshore drilling could become a reality for every coastal state in this nation. It is vital that we do not let the story of the Taylor oil spill, or the resulting loss of sea turtle habitat associated with it, be swept under the rug as it has been for the past fourteen years. Right now there is still enough oil at the Taylor site that, if left alone as proposed, the leak could continue soiling floating seaweed habitat for a hundred years. That is one hundred years of ongoing habitat loss. One hundred years of oil and gas companies not taking responsibility. One hundred years of government protections that fail to protect our seas and the special places where ocean currents converge.
“When the oil industry claims that offshore drilling is safe, remember this video and share it. While the Trump administration is planning to open up the Atlantic Ocean along the East Coast and the Arctic, remember...Speak truth to power and share this video.” - Jonathan Henderson, Vanishing Earth