Gulf Species

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

The majority of the world’s Kemp’s ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys kempii) live in the Gulf of Mexico, though they are also found along the Atlantic seaboard.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle - A Kemp's ridley sea turtle on the beach in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: National Park Service

The Gulf of Mexico is a beautiful and bountiful place where the culture and the economy as well as wildlife depend on the health of the ecosystem. Ocean Conservancy is working to fully restore health and prosperity to the Gulf, which has suffered from decades of environmental degradation and unsustainable fishing practices as well as the largest unintentional marine oil spill in history. Our scientists are monitoring indicator species—animals and plants that serve as a measure of how the environment around them is doing—to help inform ongoing restoration efforts.

The majority of the world’s Kemp’s ridley sea turtles live in the Gulf of Mexico, though they are also found along the Atlantic seaboard. Most females nest in spring and summer on beaches in eastern Mexico and Texas—during daylight, unlike other sea turtles. Each female lays about 100 eggs in the sand, and may nest up to three times in a season.

Hatchlings race to the surf and zoom quickly out to deeper waters to escape predators along the shore. These young voyagers will spend about two years at sea, frequently resting on floating mats of sargassum, a type of seaweed, and feeding on small organisms that live there. In adulthood, they return close to shore where they hunt for crabs, jellies, shellfish and small fish on the sandy or muddy bottom.

Threats and Solutions

In the 1940s, a filmmaker recorded 40,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles nesting on a single beach. Recent counts clearly reflect their endangered status: From 2005 to 2010, researches counted only about 5,500 a year on all monitored beaches combined.

Like other sea turtles, Kemp's ridleys have trouble finding suitable nesting beaches because of development. Fewer nests mean fewer young turtles. Protecting important coastal habitat, like turtle nesting sites, is one of Ocean Conservancy’s recommended restoration strategies for the Gulf region.

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which occurred during nesting season, worsened an already precarious situation. In an unprecedented move, thousands of eggs were moved from Alabama and Florida Panhandle beaches to Florida’s Atlantic coast to protect them from oil, but not every nest could be relocated.

Oil also accumulated in mats of sargassum where young Kemp’s ridleys tend to rest and eat. Of 609 dead sea turtles found after the spill, 481 were Kemp’s ridleys. Turtles can become ill when they absorb oil through the skin, eat it or inhale fumes. Health problems include increased risk of infection, hampered digestion, pneumonia, or compromised liver, kidney and brain function.

Spill prevention is just one important step for protecting sea turtles. Ocean Conservancy is also working to ensure that our beaches and waterways are free of trash that can entangle them or cause choking when they mistake it for food; plastic bags resemble a favorite meal—jellyfish.

Many turtles that do survive to adulthood die when caught unintentionally in shrimp trawls and fishing gear. That’s why Ocean Conservancy is helping make sure that shrimpers have access to Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs, that keep turtles from getting caught in trawls. Other restoration efforts include proposed updates of electronic logbooks for fishermen that will improve the accuracy of useful data, such as estimates of sea turtles caught incidentally in the shrimp fishery.

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Gulf of Mexico

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