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Turtle Targets Stir Protest to Oil-Rig Test

October 11, 1987|CASS PETERSON | The Washington Post

The National Marine Fisheries Service is seeking a permit to suspend 48 loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species under federal law, in cages near an offshore oil platform that is to be blown up.

The object is to see how such underwater blasts affect sea turtles, according to a scientist involved in planning the experiment. But the proposal has drawn strong protests from conservation groups, who contend that the project makes a mockery of laws to protect endangered species.

"We feel this is a mistake," said Carol Allen, director of a Houston conservation group called HEART, which has spearheaded efforts to protect sea turtles along the Gulf Coast. "One loggerhead already has been killed (in an experiment) to establish the lethal zone, and we object to repeating it."

Wants to Refine Guidelines

Ed Klima, director of the Fisheries Service laboratory in Galveston, Tex., said the experiment is aimed at improving protection for sea turtles by refining federal guidelines that oil companies must follow when removing offshore platforms.

"We have no intention of killing sea turtles at all," he said. "We will just see if there is any impact to their physiology and stamina for swimming."

Klima said the loggerheads would be placed in cages about 500 yards from the platform, well outside the 200-yard range that scientists believe is the lethal area. Red-ear turtles, a freshwater species that is not endangered, will be placed closer, some strapped in cages with their bellies toward the blast.

After the detonation, the turtles will be retrieved and the dead ones autopsied. Live animals will be checked for injury and tested to measure physiological changes, such as alterations in blood chemistry or navigational ability.

Expects Useful Data

Klima said the experiment, financed by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, will provide useful data for the dismantling of offshore oil platforms.

The platforms typically are loosened by explosives, then lifted with cranes and taken ashore to be dismantled. In recent years, however, scientists have accumulated evidence that the explosions coincided with high rates of turtle and dolphin beachings.

Conservation groups contend that the government already has sufficient evidence that the explosions are affecting sea creatures and should be researching alternative methods of dismantling the platforms or ways to shoo sea animals away before setting off explosives.

High-Tech Alternatives

"Once you start granting this kind of permit, it goes on forever," said Lynn Davidson of Greenpeace. "You have to test different kinds of explosives, at different depths, with different kinds of ocean floors. And then what? Do you start putting dolphins in cages, or manatees?"

Allen said that experiments in using low-frequency sound waves to repel sea creatures have proved promising in Florida, and Davidson said that laser technology could be explored as a way of removing drilling platforms without explosives.

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