Fueling Extinction: How Dirty Energy Drives Wildlife to the Brink

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

Kemp's ridley sea turtlesKemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

Scientific Name: Lepidochelys kempii

Range: The Gulf coasts of Mexico and the United States and the Atlantic coast of North America.

Conservation Status: Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. No designated habitat has yet been set aside for the turtles.

Remaining Population: About 5,500 nesting females remaining (in 1947, an amateur video shows 43,000 females nesting in one day)


The decline of this species occurred primarily due to human activities, including the direct harvest of adults and eggs and incidental capture in commercial fishing operations. Now that egg collection is illegal and turtle excluder devices are required in commercial shrimp trawl nets, the population appears to be in the early stages of recovery. Today, one of the turtle’s biggest threats is oil and gas activity.


Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest species of sea turtle and remain a mystery to scientists. They participate in an amazing natural phenomenon—a synchronized nesting. The turtles gather off a particular nesting beach and then wave upon wave of females come ashore and nest in what is called an “arribada,” which means “arrival” in Spanish (with the vast majority of the females participating in an arribada near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico). The answer to what triggers an arribada remains elusive to scientists. These unique sea turtles are the only species that nest during the day, making their arribadas extremely vulnerable to poaching. Kemp’s ridleys are the most seriously endangered of all sea turtles. Their unique behavior, limited geographic range, and the deficiency of data specific to this species’ physiology, life history, foraging range, and biology make this species very important to scientists.

They’re not only interesting to scientists, but to the American public as well. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles bring thousands of visitors each year to the upper Texas Coast and the Padre Island National Seashore in southern Texas, providing a significant economic boost to the region. In a successful collaboration between the federal government and non-profit conservation groups, and wildlife enthusiasts from across the nation, baby sea turtles are released into the ocean at this national seashore.

Threats Faced By Fossil Fuel Development

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles came to the attention of the American public during the BP oil catastrophe. Of all the turtles that were impacted by BP’s spill, the Kemp’s ridley suffered the highest death toll. A total of 809 Kemp’s ridleys were found impacted by the BP oil spill and of those 609 were killed. For a species with such low numbers to begin with, that death toll is unacceptable.

This isn’t the turtle’s first time facing a catastrophic oil spill. The Ixtoc 1 oil spill in 1979 contaminated over 160 miles of U.S. beaches with the 71,500 barrels, requiring the relocation of thousands of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles to prevent their death. Their nesting population plummeted to fewer than 500 individuals of the entire species in the aftermath of the Ixtoc I spill.

In addition to oil spills, Kemp’s ridleys face death from, from explosive decommissioning of oil platforms, from the ingestion of debris from offshore oil facilities, and vessel strikes. The turtles also face indirect threats from the expansion of oil and gas operations along nesting beaches and foraging grounds which threaten to destroy nesting, feeding, and migrating areas. In addition, indirect threats occur from the chronic exposure to oil and gas products that poison their environment and from the acoustic disturbance of oil and gas exploration and operations offshore.

A harsh political climate exists for the protection of endangered Kemp’s ridleys from the oil and gas industry. In the wake of the BP oil spill, no new protections for sea turtles from oil have been established, either locally or nationally. Our smallest sea turtle remains our most vulnerable to fossil fuel development.

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