Trends in Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) Relative Abundance, Distribution, and Size Composition in Nearshore Waters of the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico
Long-term monitoring of in-water life history stages of the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) is essential for management because it generates information on the species’ at-sea abundance, size composition, distribution, and habitat requirements. We documented trends in Kemp’s ridley size, relative abundance, and distribution using entanglement netting surveys at three study areas adjacent to tidal passes in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico (NWGOM) during intermittent sampling periods from 1991 to 2013. A total of 656 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were captured ranging in size from 19.5 to 66.3 cm straight carapace length (SCL) (mean 1⁄4 35.0 cm SCL). The dominance of juveniles (25–40 cm SCL) captured during sampling suggests the nearshore waters of the NWGOM are an important developmental foraging ground for Kemp’s ridley. Characterization of Kemp’s ridley long-term relative abundance reveals a generally stable trend in catch- per-unit-effort (CPUE) across all study areas combined. Based on the increasing trend in the number of hatchlings released from the species’ primary nesting beach, Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, since the early 1990s, the lack of a corresponding overall increase in juvenile abundance at nearshore sampling locations is puzzling. This disparity is most likely an artifact of the present study’s sampling design, but could also indicate shifts in Kemp’s ridley recruitment away from the NWGOM. While conservation efforts have contributed to this species’ overall growth since the 1980s, as measured by the increasing number of nests, recent declines in this rate of increase are a concern and call for a more comprehensive approach to managing Kemp’s ridley recovery efforts.