WASHINGTON -- Endangered sea turtles face a new survival threat from the decomposing wreckage of a ferry boat that ran aground on the Puerto Rican coral reef where the turtles lay their eggs, environmentalists say.
Debris and oil from the 10-month-old wreck of the A. Regina, a 335-foot ferry boat, are gradually overtaking the nesting grounds used by three species of sea turtles -- all on the government's endangered species list.
'Day by day this vessel is wrecking the coral reef,' said Peter Dykstra of the Greenpeace environmental group.
Ecological damage to the reef, off the shore of Puerto Rico's uninhabited Mona Island, has reduced by 48 percent the nesting grounds used by green, leatherback and hawksbill turtles, Dykstra said.
Edward Simmons, Greenpeace's regional executive director for the Southeast, said the danger comes in part from the slow leakage of the vessel's 12 metric tons of fuel onto the sandy beaches.
Female turtles lay their eggs in the sand. The coat of oil over parts of the nesting ground has made it more difficult for them to deposit eggs into the sand and complicated hatchlings' efforts to reach the surface, Simmons said.
He also noted that the ferry's windows, carpeting, bathroom fixtures and kitchen utensils are gradually being washed onto the beach, blocking the turtles' path to the nesting area.
Because the turtles are biologically incapable of walking backward, many have walked forward into spots where they are surrounded by debris on three sides and 'cannot get out of it,' Simmons said. 'They just die there.'
A third threat, according to Greenpeace and the Center for Environmental Education, comes from the still-moving wreckage.
'The vessel is not hard aground and is constantly grinding the coral reef,' the center said in a printed statement. 'Plumes of sediment are carried downcurrent from the wreck, thereby damaging the surrounding live coral.'
Severe damage could destroy the coral reef, which brakes the waves that otherwise would wash away Mona Island's beaches, Simmons said, warning that without the reef, 'the beaches will all erode.'
Since the ferry's owners have done nothing to remove the vessel, the environmental groups want the Coast Guard to intervene under federal law to remove its wreckage.
A Coast Guard spokesman said authorities determined after a Nov. 21 flight over the site that there is 'no significant threat to the environment posed by the ship.' As a result, the Coast Guard plans no further action, he said.
The environmentalists are appealing the Coast Guard's decision.
Besides the three endangered species of sea turtles, Simmons said, the reef also is populated by two other endangered species -- the land iguana and the yellow-shouldered blackbird -- and a 'threatened' species -- the loggerhead turtle.