How a YouTube video stopped BP from torching turtles

When BP conducts a controlled burn in the Gulf of Mexico, two shrimp boats drag a boom across the water’s surface, collecting floating oil until it’s thick enough to set afire. The boom also captures everything else on the surface, including oiled sea turtles, and until yesterday, BP was blithely setting them afire as well.

The conservation biologist Catherine Craig blew the whistle on this practice on June 13, not by going to The New York Times or The Washington Post, but by going to YouTube, where she opened a new account and posted an impromtu interview with Mike Ellis, a Venice, La., fishing captain hired by BP to collect sea turtles trapped in the slick.

Ellis describes turtles being caught in the loops of boom dragged by the shrimp boats. He saved some of those trapped turtles until BP ordered him to stop:

“We’re in there one day and we caught ten,” he says. “They ran us out of there and then they shut us down, they wouldn’t let us go back in there. In the meantime how many turtles got caught up and just burned?”

All five species of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act: leatherback, green, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, and loggerhead.

The  mainstream media were slow to pick up the turtle incineration story, but Craig’s video caught fire on social media, collecting more than 136,000 views. Raw Story ran a story a week after Craig posted her video, then TreeHugger ran a brief that was later distributed by Alternet, but the video itself continued to be the major draw until four environmental groups sued BP and the U.S. Coast Guard on behalf of the turtles.

Yesterday BP and the Coast Guard settled with the Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network. BP and the U.S. agreed to inform the groups whether a biologist  is present at controlled burns and to develop a procedure to protect the turtles from the burns, if not from the oil.

“We are pleased that BP and the Coast Guard have agreed to take a variety of actions to prevent the horrific burning alive of endangered sea turtles,” said AWI President Cathy Liss. “This agreement represents a critical stop-gap measure and a lifeline for these endangered turtles. We hope this is the first step in the development of clear operating procedures that allow BP to remove oil  without inflicting further harm on the turtles.”

The government acted quickly on its promises, annoucing soon after the settlement that it would beef-up an ongoing turtle observer program and train more turtle observers this weekend.

“If sea turtle observers can improve the sighting and collection of sea turtles prior to burn and skimming operations, then this is another way to reach more turtles in harm’s way and reduce additional risks posed to turtles by the oil spill,” according to a press release issued yesterday afternoon by the Deepwater Horizon  Incident Command Center.

About 100 turtles have been rescued from the oil spill, according to the release, and 90 percent of them are alive at rehabilitation centers. There have been 275 controlled burns so far, which have consumed an estimated 10 million gallons of oil. That’s close to the size of an Exxon Valdez spill, but a fraction of the ongoing BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of the Mexico.

Sea turtles tend to congregate in convergence zones in the Gulf, where strong opposing currents meet, sustaining floating beds of sargassam seaweed that offer the turtles food and cover. Oil also tends to accumulate in those areas.

“Burn operations sometimes occur there because of the aggregated oil,” the Coast Guard said.

Toward the end of the video, Craig asks Ellis whether he and other works are suffering headaches or any other ill effects from the oil or dispersants.

“Plenty of headaches,” Ellis says, “but I don’t know if the headaches was so much just from seeing– seeing everything you know just destroyed and disgusting, or if it’s from the oil and the smell. Pretty wicked headaches.”

Catherine Craig’s video interview of Mike Ellis:

[youtubevid id=”4kjw3_bMk8o”]

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