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As part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Consortium (CIGOM), the Remote Sensing Laboratory and Geographic Information Systems of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (Cinvestav), Mérida unit, has been dedicated in recent years to studying the distribution of sea turtles in the Mexican area of the Gulf of Mexico, from Tamaulipas to Quintana Roo.
In addition to obtaining basic scientific information, the researchers seek to generate a contingency plan for oil operations that affect sea turtles and their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, with the collaboration of representatives of research institutions, civil associations and the public sector. These efforts are part of the project Analysis of critical habitats of sea turtles, registered in two lines of work of the Cigom: baseline and environmental monitoring and analysis of spill scenarios.
According to María de Los Ángeles Liceaga Correa, researcher at Cinvestav Mérida and coordinator of the laboratory, the subproject aims to publicize the spatiotemporal distribution of sea turtle individuals , identify their aggregation zones and their migratory corridors, as well as how to generate an expert knowledge for the development of the plan of attention to contingencies for oil operation for these marine species.
Oil spills, a latent threat
At the international level, disasters of great magnitude have occurred due to oil spills. On April 20, 2010, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused the largest accidental spill in history. During the three months, it took to be stopped, the leak released around five million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the lack of information on the conditions of this region prior to the disaster, the magnitude of the damage and effects of the spill on the ecosystem and, in particular, on sea turtles is still unknown to this day.
Based on the shared ideas of a group of scientists and personnel of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) about the lack of information to understand and act in case of possible large-scale hydrocarbon spills in the Gulf of Mexico, in 2015 it was founded the Gulf of Mexico Research Consortium, specialized in multidisciplinary projects related to possible environmental impacts of the oil and gas industry in the marine ecosystems of this region.
In addition to obtaining basic scientific information, the researchers seek to generate a contingency plan for oil operations that affect sea turtles and their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico.
Since its foundation, Cigom has coordinated the wide-ranging project “Implementation of oceanographic observation networks (physical, geochemical, ecological) for the generation of scenarios in the face of possible contingencies related to the exploration and production of hydrocarbons in Mexico “, financed through of the Conacyt-Sener Hydrocarbons Fund.
Sea turtles, priority conservation species
In addition, they are a priority for the maintenance of marine ecosystems because they transport nutrients and energy between habitats, while at the same time contributing to the maintenance of the balance in the biodiversity of the habitats.
In terms of their important biological attributes, they are slow-growing, late-maturing, have a high mortality rate during the early stages of their lives and a prolonged life cycle and characterized by their migrations, where they occupy different terrestrial, coastal and marine environments, in addition to different geographical regions. “These characteristics make them very vulnerable species because their long migrations expose them to natural and anthropogenic affectations that lead them to very particular conditions of a decline in their populations,” he said.
Five of the seven species of sea turtles that inhabit the world live in the Gulf of Mexico and, due to their high sensitivity, they are classified under the category of the danger of extinction by the Official Mexican Standard 059, so various programs have been promoted. and conservation activities in the country, the context in which the subproject Analysis of critical sea turtle habitats is framed.
“The fact that many of the species that inhabit the world are in Mexico, has given the country responsibility to be a pioneer in conservation programs, we have a very broad record of the initiatives and achievements that have been achieved with those programs and which have seen positive results in many of the species that are considered at very high risk, “said Guadalupe Mexicano.
One of the most outstanding is the Program of Recovery and Repopulation of Species at Risk (Proce), which emerged as an initiative of the federal government in 2007, and has the function of contributing to the conservation of species at risk through the Action Programs for the Conservation of Species (PACE).
“One of these is the Marine Turtle Conservation Program, in which are the hawksbill, white, loggerhead and leatherback turtles and, in particular, the parrot, with a binational program with the United States, all focused on constant monitoring to see the behaviour of the species and their populations “. These activities involve the three levels of government, non-governmental organizations, higher education institutions, research institutions and civil society, through a scheme of co-participation and co-responsibility among the actors.
“This participation, together with the knowledge that is generated, gives the guidelines to support the decision making of a comprehensive conservation strategy for these species; this contributes in the development of projects that are continuously contributing information for these conservation programs “, the researcher highlighted.
Sea turtle habitats in the Gulf of Mexico
Of the five species of turtles that inhabit the gulf, four sub-projects are studied: hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), white (Chelonia mydas), Lora (Lepidochelys kempii) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta). According to María de Los Ángeles Liceaga, the project seeks to know their habitats from two main aspects: from the point of view of individuals and their aggregations.
From the approach of individuals, we sought to know the spatial and temporal distribution of the turtles, as well as their abundance. For this, censuses were conducted with observers aboard oceanographic cruises, identifying and recording the susceptible stages. During the work that has been done as part of the Cigom, and in previous experiences, Cinvestav Mérida researchers have corroborated, through the placement of satellite transmitters to marine turtles, the wide use that turtles give to the Gulf of Mexico during their complex Lifecycle.
In this subproject, 90 satellite transmitters were placed with an equal number of nesting turtle individuals, with the purpose of identifying their aggregation sites and identifying their feeding and inter-habitat habitats, as well as their migratory routes. The transmitters were placed to turtles that nested on Mexican beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, from Tamaulipas to Quintana Roo. The habitats of sea turtle hatchlings are pelagic and were identified in satellite images. In 2015, there was a significant increase in the biomass of sargassum (Sargassum sp.) In the Caribbean, reaching high impact levels for different sectors of Quintana Roo.
Towards a contingency plan to attend marine turtles
According to Guadalupe Mexicano, one of the objectives of the subproject is the development of a contingency plan for oil operations that affects sea turtles and their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico. “The particular objective of this plan is to develop a document with scientific bases and elements of hierarchical and spatially explicit criteria that allow a strategic planning for the attention of sea turtles before a contingency of hydrocarbons.”
For the preparation of this document, a workshop was held with the participation of public institutions, academics and non-governmental organizations in which it was made known how it is framed in the National Contingency Plan and how it is inserted in conservation programs. marine turtles, as well as knowing the gaps and information needs that exist and are necessary to develop it.
For the researcher, the plan is developed to combat and control spills of hydrocarbons and other potentially dangerous harmful substances in Mexican marine areas, with the Ministry of the Navy being the authority responsible for coordinating their implementation. “This is a document that contains guidelines for preparation for spill care and is the framework for establishing regional and local contingency plans. It also raises how the organization should be in order to carry out a response according to the magnitude of the incident. ”
National Contingency Assistance Plan
The National Contingency Assistance Plan includes three main levels. The first is activated when an incidental spill occurs with low impacts and a local response capacity, where the Local Coordination Organization (OCL) is summoned and the local contingency plan is activated. The second level occurs when the spill requires the support of other states, for which the Regional Coordination Body is activated and the Regional Contingency Plan is activated; while level three goes into effect when the impacts are far-reaching and require the activation of the National Plan, and international assistance may even be required.
An important aspect is a follow-up of the Incident Command System, a structure that is made up of the facilities, the team, the personnel (federal, state and municipal dependencies, the academic sector, the parastatal organisms, the private sector and the NGOs), as well as protocols, procedures and communication. It consists of four main sections: operations, planning, logistics and finance.
The plan that is developed has its main support in the planning section and the operations section, where a technical group of technical specialists that carries out rescue and rehabilitation operations participates. According to Guadalupe Mexicano, it is expected that with the information generated from the workshops, the working groups could have a help material to implement the Contingency Plan for marine turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and to bring It carries out the steps required to meet the objective of protecting the species and their rescue, management, transport and rehabilitation, in accordance with the given conditions.
“It is intended that the care plan we are developing have strategic planning and contain official documentation regarding the care of incidents, for which we are consulting care or safety protocols, regulations to be able to manage organisms, transport them and analyze them. of risk to be able to make all the decisions that can be carried out at that moment “.