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Oil spills and sea turtles: documented effects and considerations for response and assessment efforts

Bryan P. Wallace*, Brian A. Stacy, Eduardo Cuevas, Carly Holyoake, Paulo H. Lara, Ana Claudia J. Marcondes, Jeffrey D. Miller, Hugo Nijkamp, Nicolas J. Pilcher, Ian Robinson, Nicholle Rutherford, Gary Shigenaka

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Hydrocarbon (i.e. oil) extraction, transport, consumption, and pollution occur daily in marine environments, threatening vulnerable natural resources, habitats, and biodiversity. However, threats of episodic oil spills to imperiled marine species are not as well-studied as more acute, readily apparent threats, such as incidental capture in fisheries and habitat degradation. We performed a global review of spill incident databases to evaluate reported effects of oil spills on sea turtles, which are flagship species of the world’s oceans. Our goals were to (1) summarize available information about oil spills and their effects on sea turtles; (2) identify major knowledge gaps; and (3) provide recommendations related to oil spills and sea turtles for managers, researchers, and conservation groups around the world. Over 2000 oil spill incidents of variable magnitude (range: ~20 barrels to >1 million barrels) have occurred worldwide in the past 60 years in areas where sea turtles are found, but resulting effects on sea turtles have been reported in less than 2% of those incidents. Further, evidence indicates that most effects are related to heavy external oiling, while chemical effects of oil exposure have not been well-defined. We recommend that, where available, resources be prioritized to document co-occurrence of turtles and oil, the degree and nature of oil exposure, and mortality and reproductive losses to individual sea turtles and their populations caused by spills and spill response activities. These data will best inform assessments of the extent and magnitude of adverse effects of oil spills on sea turtles.