Residents Say Sea Turtles Rot on Beaches of the Gulf

Laurel Lockamy thought she had seen the worst of the oil disaster last summer when waves of oil and tar patties washed onto her beach in Gulfport, MS, taking a major toll on the local tourist industry.

But now a new disaster is unfolding, she says, just as beachgoers are heading back to the water. A large spike in the number of dead sea turtles is being reported across the beaches of the Magnolia State. Residents now find them rotting in the springtime sun along with other animals and birds that float in with the tides.

Laurel has photographed three dead sea turtles on this stretch of sand in the past two weeks. Like other Mississippi residents, she’s never seen one dead—or alive—before.   

Earlier this week, Laurel went out to the Gulfport beach with her camera to see if any new turtles had washed in.  First she saw a dead armadillo curled up in the sand, along with several other dead birds. But a short stroll later she came across another turtle, decomposing along the water’s edge.

Dead sea turtle in Gulfport marked for disposal    Photos by Laurel Lockamy

Laurel called the NOAA hotline and the state’s Institute of Marine Mammal Research (IMMR) to arrange a pickup. All turtles in the Gulf are on the endangered species list, and they are protected under federal law.

Over an hour later, she says, a crew from the IMMR showed up, took pictures and measurements, spray painted it with orange paint for pickup, and then left the turtle on the beach. A county beach worker told her they scooped up another turtle not far away and took it to the dump.

“They didn’t do any testing,” Laurel says, “they just measured it, sprayed it and left it on the beach to rot. This is ridiculous. Why isn’t anyone testing them? I’m terrified to go to the beach these days.”

NOAA Fisheries Service says its turtle stranding network collects all newly found or moderately decomposing turtles for testing to try to determine cause of death, include drowning from fishing nets, biotoxins and disease or complications from oil pollution. 

Connie Barkley, a NOAA fisheries spokeswoman, said all turtles that are collected are tested, but so far no test results of the recent strandings have been made public. Local authorities are responsible for disposing of turtles that have already been counted and examined. “We get out there as quickly as we can,” she said. “We don’t just leave them there for days and days.” she said.

But according to some Gulf residents, that’s exactly what’s happened in some cases. Pass Christian resident Shirley Tillman has witnessed 13 dead sea turtles washing up on beaches near her home, nearly all in the past few weeks. Earlier this week she found four on one day. She says in several cases she’s called the IMMR and NOAA authorities and given them coordinates to have the turtles picked up, only to go back and find they haven’t been picked up for days.

“I’m getting tired of going out there and trying to get people to pick them up,” says Shirley, a grandmother and wife of a Pass Christian home builder. “These turtles just lay there decomposing and the stuff just explodes and stuff oozes out of them. Who’s going to keep the kids from coming over and play in the sand right next to them?”

Dead armadillo found near turtle on Gulfport beach              Photo by Laurel Lockaby

NOAA says they’ve found more than 60 dead sea turtles in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana since April 3 of this year, nearly all of them in the past month. Even though turtle strandings tend to spike in the spring, this is a high number of turtles to strand in these areas. NOAA records show most are found along the gulf coast of Florida and Texas. Experts say the number of turtles carcasses recovered represents a small fraction to the toal number that have died.

IMMR, which collects endangered turtles and federally protected dolphins stranded in Mississippi and Alabama, says its crews go out and bring the turtles back for necropsies, which are handled by the federal government. “We’ve been crazy busy,” says Shannon Huyser, a stranding coordinator. “But we usually get there the same day we get the calls. If they’re not too decomposed, we bring them back for necropsies. But that’s pretty rare.”

But some residents think more needs to be done. They wonder why it sometimes takes so long for these turtles to be picked up and tested. They worry that the spike in turtle deaths, like the dead baby dolphins washing in, shows something isn’t right with the Gulf after the worst oil spill in US history.

But most of all, they are praying these lifeless ancient animals of the sea aren’t a sign of worse things to come.