by Stacey Matrazzo
Until last weekend, I had never seen a wild sea turtle crawling on the beach. But as I sat on the Atlantic shore last Friday night, digging my toes into the wet sand and watching the brilliant light of a full moon sparkle on the ocean’s surface, I noticed not one, not two, but seven sea turtles emerging from the dark water and lumbering up the beach in search of the perfect place to lay their eggs. They were slow and deliberate, as if inspecting every grain of sand to insure they were in the right place. Unsatisfied with the prospects, six of the turtles turned around halfway up the beach and slowly crept back toward the sea, while the last turtle sought out her sacred space and began to dig her nest.
My joy of watching this scene unfold was overshadowed by the awareness of the disaster taking place in the waters on the other side of our state. I couldn’t help but think how lucky these seven turtles were to be here, and not in the Gulf of Mexico.
In an effort to save the hatchlings along the Gulf shores from an imminent death-by-oil, the US Fish and Wildlife service has recently implemented a plan to dig up and relocate 70,000 sea turtle eggs from the Alabama and northwest Florida coasts to Kennedy Space Center on our east coast. The relocated eggs will be carefully stored in temperature-controlled coolers until the turtles hatch, at which time the hatchlings will be released.
This is a valiant undertaking, with the best intentions — and arguably the best of possible consequences for these endangered hatchlings. Back on the Gulf, they might be coated with crude or eat something tainted by oil and die.
Nonetheless, this “relocation” affects the delicate balance of nature these creatures have participated in for millennia. Most scientists believe that female sea turtles return to their natal beach to lay their eggs. Turtles have a kind of homing device that uses the earth’s magnetic fields for navigation. So what will an egg’s relocation do to that homing device? Will the female who was an egg on the west coast but hatched on the east coast know which beach to go to? Will it matter?
Like all reptiles, the sea turtle gender is determined by temperature. The displaced eggs will be stored in temperature-controlled coolers. Still, we may be predetermining the sex of 70,000 turtles. What ratio are we using and what is that based on? Do we know how many males and how many females nature requires for the health of the species?
I’m not naive enough to think that these and other questions have not been considered by the scientists involved in this mission. But I do know that no matter the science, no matter the statistics or formulas or even the utmost care, these kinds of uncertainties are not for us to decide.
Yet, we’ve created a world where these decisions are being made by us. Like the hatchling relocation project, they are almost always in response to yet another decision we took upon ourselves to deem safe and necessary and right.
We think we know it all when it comes to the natural world. We think we are in control, yet even when the fallacy of this anthropocentric thinking is thrown in our face, we still believe we have the answers. We react, hastily, and then hope for the best.
Sooner or later, this approach will cease to work for us. But what is the answer? Do we have the right to make these decisions? If so, on what basis should we be making them? Should it be ecological? Spiritual? Economic? Political? Should we be making the decisions based short term or long term consequences? Give us your opinion.