ESR prepress abstract  -  doi: 10.3354/esr00728

Estimating sea turtle exposures to Deepwater Horizon oil

Bryan P. Wallace*, Brian A. Stacy, Matthew Rissing, Dave Cacela, Lance P. Garrison, George D. Graettinger, James V. Holmes, Trent McDonald, Danya McLamb, Barbara Schroeder

*Email: bryan_wallace@abtassoc.com

ABSTRACT: The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill was unprecedented in extent and duration, and affected marine natural resources, including sea turtles, throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico. Consequently, US federal and state Trustees documented and quantified oil exposure and resulting injuries to sea turtles under the DWH Natural Resource Damage Assessment. At-sea rescue operations focused on surface-pelagic juvenile sea turtles, which were especially at risk to oil exposure within oceanic convergence zones, and provided direct observations of the degree that turtles in this young life stage were exposed to DWH oil. In contrast, locations of larger neritic juvenile and adult turtles were documented during aerial surveys, but because these turtles were not captured, their oiling status could not be directly evaluated. Both the rescue operations and aerial surveys were able to observe only a small fraction of sea turtles within the vast spill footprint. We developed a spatio-temporally explicit approach that used direct observations of oiled surface-pelagic juvenile sea turtles and satellite-derived surface oil distributions to statistically estimate the probabilities of oil exposure for all sea turtles that were present within the area of the DWH spill, but whose oiling status was unknown. Our results enabled an expansion of exposure and injury quantification across the entire DWH spill area and period. This approach was conceptually straightforward and used common geospatial and statistical techniques, making it applicable to other situations in which the full extent of oil exposure for marine natural resources must be estimated from an incomplete sample.