Note to Editors & Reporters: Additional information on the ISTS symposium can be found at There will be public access to the poster presentations and vendor areas on April 14-16 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.For additional news releases and press materials, visit the web site

Newswise — HAMMOND — Sea turtles—a group of seven species thought to have evolved more than 200 million years ago—are currently under significant stress, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily as a result of human negligence and industrialization, scientists claim.

“Sea turtles have emerged as a strong global symbol of all that’s right—and wrong—in our oceans. Around the world many people study them and work hard to make sure turtles survive,” said Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and a past president of the International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS).

A group of more than 600 scientists, conservationists, students and others will meet in New Orleans April 10-17 to discuss this and a wide range of other topics at the 34th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, the main meeting of the ISTS.

“The meeting draws participants from around the world and across various disciplines and cultures to address a common interest and objective: the conservation of sea turtles and their environment”, said current ISTS President Roldán Valverde, a sea turtle expert and associate professor of biological sciences at Southeastern Louisiana University.Other topics included in the program are marine threats to sea turtle habitats, impact of fisheries bycatch, oil spills, climate change, and urban development in coastal areas. Special workshops will also be offered on sea turtle rehabilitation and health.

“ISTS is a very diverse organization, representing various cultures, national origins, professions, and organizations,” said Valverde. “We are united in our vision and knowledge of the importance sea turtles play in our environment and are dedicated to preserving their habitats and improving conservation measures for these endangered species.”

Valverde said this is the first time the ISTS is meeting in New Orleans, and he sees this as an ideal opportunity to call attention to deterioration of the once abundant sea turtle populations in the Gulf of Mexico. He and fellow scientists are still tallying the damage to the sea turtle population attributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana several years ago.

How did the largest accidental marine oil spill affect the Gulf’s sea turtles? Valverde and his fellow scientists have found the basic question difficult to answer because they lack precise historic data on turtle populations, particularly in Louisiana waters.

“In the Gulf of Mexico, the abundance of all the sea turtle species tends to be lowest in the north central Gulf of Mexico, around Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,” he said. “Certainly, these states were among the hardest hit by the oil spill. The reasons behind the decline are unknown, but signs point to industrial development and fisheries bycatch, combined with the lack of suitable nesting habitats.”

Valverde said after the oil spill, many turtles were brought to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and other Gulf sites to recover.

“Many of these turtles were covered with oil, and many had ingested oil,” he explained. “But if we say the spill was responsible for sea turtle deaths, we’re asked for numbers. Nobody really knows because there weren’t previous studies to determine the population status of the various species.”

Valverde and other scientists are currently working to establish new population baselines in the Gulf of Mexico so scientists can use the data to determine impacts of disasters and changes as they occur in the future. He said the only turtle data currently available as far as impact from the oil spill is what was collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which determined that about 600 turtles had died during the spill.

“But that is only what was physically seen and counted,” he added. “In actual fact, probably thousands of turtles died due to the spill. We could not count those because they probably sunk to the bottom of the Gulf before they could be counted.”

There are five sea turtle species that inhabit the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and all are considered endangered.

Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the oceans and open water, and females return to beaches to build their nests and lay eggs. While Louisiana is not a nesting ground, Valverde said it is an important area for the growth, development and feeding of these turtles. Most of the nesting takes place in Florida, Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula.

A major concern, he said, is that the sea turtle populations may eventually disappear from the Gulf of Mexico due to human negligence.

“This could cause significant impact on our marine ecosystem that we cannot predict at this point because we lack the data on how these species contribute to our ecosystem,” he added.

“The people Roldán is bringing together in New Orleans are some of the world’s most committed and prepared scientists and advocates for sea turtles and the oceans. Events like this give us all hope that we can fix what’s broken,” added Nichols.