How much is a turtle worth?
While this could be construed as a Chinese proverb or a troubling Philosophy 101 test question, it is not. It can be defined in a number of ways – price per animal for consumption, cost associated with purchase within the pet trade – but the inherent worth of the animal to the ecosystem in which it lives is a more difficult concept to establish. What about tourism that this species might bring to a region? Branding and marketing based on this as a “flagship” species for a certain area? Use of these animals for protection of habitat for other less cuddly macro- and microvertabrates (and, yes, I too think they are cuddly). These are concepts that are challenging to establish in a quantifiable manner.
We are forced to address these questions within the spill community through a number of different fronts. As I blogged on before, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment phase of a spill places monetary costs onto a spiller to return the environment back to pre-spill conditions. This requires a determination of the net value of resources (such as sea turtles) and a monetary cost of returning these resources back to “normal”. However, the issue that more frequently raises its head during oil spills is the cost of conducting oiled wildlife rehabilitation efforts versus the results that come from this activity. The spectre of the “$15,000 per sea otter” during Exxon Valdez still raises its head even 20 years later. Many state that these funds should be redirected toward population-level restoration and conservation efforts versus individual animal care. Even during this spill, critics have stated that wildlife response efforts are “not cost effective and the animals usually die” or that a more effective method would be to institute immediate euthanasia to those impacted species during spills to limit costs and animal suffering (Google if you do not believe me).
I cannot argue the fact that oiled wildlife response is expensive. The establishment, staffing and supplying of 8 regional facilities to care for wildlife (birds, mammals, and turtles) for this response is likely to be very costly when it is all said and done – especially if compared on a “per-bird” or “per-turtle/mammal” basis (or at least I hope it is, as that will imply low animal numbers). But it needs to be understood that oil spills, by their very nature, are expensive. Case in point: this spill is reported to have cost BP more that $350 million dollars as of yesterday – I can guarantee you that only a minute fraction of that is going towards wildlife care. Another example where wildlife care efforts were considered excessive (the genesis of the $15,000 otter) was the Exxon Valdez oil spill, yet wildlife recovery and care accounted for less than 5% of the overall costs of the response. Wildlife care efforts are often the most frugal of any activities within a spill, with the bulk of manpower often coming from volunteer (or “paraprofessional”) assistance, facilities designed and constructed with economy in mind, and all efforts approached in a manner that would make MacGyver (or, for the more recent folks, the MythBusters – my personal idols) proud. Yet this is the aspect of a response that resonates most with the general public.
Also, it needs to be understood that lower rehabilitation costs do not necessarily equate to more funds being available for larger scale environmental efforts. In the United States, the spiller is responsible for both response costs (where wildlife recovery and rehabilitation are included) as well as restoration costs. Were funds saved on the animals care side, this would not translate to more money being available to put towards NRDA. In fact, it might mean the opposite, as the data we generate within the wildlife operations of a spill actually generate the information necessary for accurate estimates by NRDA to assess overall damage. Less accurate estimates can lead to more uncertainty in the eventual impact models, which can then lead to possible arguments between NRDA and the spiller over an adequate settlement.
Last, and certainly not least, there is the societal and humane issues associated with oiled wildlife response. Like it or not, most oil spills are anthropogenic in cause – the oil is released because of our needs as a society to collect and use it. This human activity can create havoc upon the environment, and many (including myself) feel that we have an obligation to attempt to repair this damage. Most societies now demand that animals be cared for in such events, be it individually through taking action into their own hands or demanding that spillers support professional rehabilitation organizations to do effective, excellent work. Claiming that this work is not cost effective is missing the larger point – the work WILL be done. The question is whether it will be done well and in a safe manner.
On a personal note (one that is difficult for me to verbalize), as a veterinarian I have taken an oath to minimize animal suffering whenever possible. I take this oath very seriously in both my personal as well as my professional life, and more recently have attempted to apply it to spill efforts by making responses as effective and smooth running as possible. This often takes me away from the hands-on medical care that I love (as well as leaving myself open to being labeled a “suit”) but I feel it allows me to make a greater impact by ensuring that the overall rehabilitation efforts are supported and run smoothly. At its core, to me this ultimately can help reduce the suffering that animals undergo during such human-caused events. So, to put a price tag on the value of such efforts, when the spiller is often very open to support this work, is, in a word, wrong.
So, how much is a turtle (or a bird, or a dolphin) worth? I think we each have differing estimate of this, but I can guarantee you that the value that animal places on itself is pretty darn high.
So, to quote Sir Sean Connery from The Untouchables, “here endeth the lesson”. For those of you still reading, thank you for letting me get this off my chest, and the soapbox is officially put away. I promise to speak on happy things, like bunnies and rainbows, tomorrow. And, speaking of happy things, still no apparently oiled mammals or turtles collected.