HILO >> The Kilauea volcano eruption did not critically damage sea turtle populations on the Big Island, according to a survey conducted by a Hawaii wildlife conservation group.
The Hawaii Wildlife Fund determined this month that lava did not harm turtle populations despite the persistence of unsubstantiated claims warning of turtle deaths during the eruption that began in May, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Sunday.
The wildlife organization conducted two helicopter flights above the lava-impacted coastline, observing 50 live turtles and other sea life. Turtle experts also were consulted for the survey, who agreed that sea turtles were likely able to escape lava en masse, said Kallie Barnes, the organization’s education coordinator.
Two endangered species of sea turtles frequent Big Island coastlines, the hawksbill sea turtle and the green sea turtle.
The turtles have largely abandoned the coastlines near the lava flows, likely because they had insufficient food in the new coastal lava rock, Barnes said.
While state and federal agencies have said that large numbers of sea turtles were not endangered by lava flowing into the ocean during the eruption, confusion followed those reports, prompting the organization to conduct its own, Barnes said.
“There were all kinds of reports that (turtles) were trapped or stranded, driven by social media,” Barnes said.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources did not observe any turtles in distress during the eruption, said A.J. McWhorter, communications specialist for the department.
“We concur with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s findings that the majority of turtles vacated the area when the lava started entering the ocean,” McWhorter said. “Of course, we are saddened by any loss of any creature that we help protect.”