2020 Science, Technology and Environment

Donna J. Shaver, Ph.D.

Championed the conservation and recovery efforts for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, helping save the species from extinction by protecting and preserving the nests at Padre Island National Seashore. 

Listen to Donna Shaver discuss her work:

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was designated as an endangered species by the federal government in 1970 and is still considered the most vulnerable of the seven types of sea turtles on Earth. In the 1980s, a mere 300 females were counted in their nesting habitats, primarily along the Gulf Coast of Mexico and Texas, down from 40,000 in the 1940s.  

Through four decades of work that continues with intensity to this day, Donna Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore in south Texas, has played an instrumental role in keeping this species from disappearing altogether. The sea turtles, once the most abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, play an important role in marine and beach ecosystems. 

“I believe the work that Donna Shaver has done over her career has helped save this species from extinction,” said Cynthia Rubio, a supervisory biologist who works with Shaver. “Without her dedication, this species would be much worse off.” 

In July 2019, for example, Shaver and her team released 95 baby Kemp’s ridley sea turtles into the ocean during a public event on Padre Island, the 23rd release of the year and part of her steadfast effort to save this species and reestablish a stable nesting ground. 

Kemp’s ridleys are among the smallest sea turtles, reaching only about 2 feet in shell length and weighing up to 100 pounds. According to the most recent estimates by the National Park Service, the nesting female population of Kemp’s ridleys is now about 5,500 along the Gulf Coast. 

The decline of this species is primarily due to human activities, including the direct harvest of adults and eggs, the incidental capture in commercial fishing operations and the impact from oil spills.  

Mina Williams, a retired professor from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, described Shaver as a “pioneer conservationist,” who has “brought national and international attention” to the sea turtle program at Padre Island National Seashore. 

She said the “road to recovery has not been smooth,” with some successes and some setbacks. But through it all, she said, Shaver has been an unwavering advocate for her recovery program. 

Inspired to enter public service by her father, a Naval Academy graduate, Shaver spent her first several years at Padre Island as a seasonal employee before joining the National Park Service on a full-time basis. 

“She is a pioneer in the protection of this species,” said Martha Villalba-Guerra, one of Shaver’s employees. “She is tenacious.” 

In the early years of her career, Shaver encountered disbelief that the turtle species could be recovered. When years went by without any growth in the number of nests appearing on Padre Island, Shaver stressed the need for patience. The sea turtles had to take their time—at least a decade—to reach maturity before they would return to shore to lay eggs. 

Shaver understood it would be imperative to gather accurate data about the sea turtles’ migratory habits in order to conserve the species.  

“No one really understood where the turtles went when they weren’t nesting,” said Shelby Walker, a National Park Service biological technician. All of that changed when Shaver introduced satellite tracking in the 1990s to gather information about their migratory patterns. 

Using this data, Shaver deduced that local shrimp fisheries were largely responsible for interfering with the sea turtles’ foraging paths along the Gulf of Mexico. She worked closely with the state of Texas to pass new laws governing when and where fisheries could operate near Padre Island and enforcing the use of turtle extraction devices in fishing nets so turtles caught in them could easily escape. 

“Her dedication to sound science is unparalleled,” Walker said. “She honestly cares about getting things right and getting the right information and getting it out to the world so that it can help the sea turtles.” 

Shaver has also worked to ensure the sea turtles are safe when they come ashore and that the beaches are conducive to their nesting habits. Every year, she and her team train close to 100 volunteers from the local community to assist in combing the beaches to look for nests. Any eggs they find are brought back to an incubation room or a screened enclosure, where they are monitored and kept safe from predators like coyotes until they are ready to be hatched and released. 

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Department of the Interior appointed Shaver to be a principal investigator for a study on the impact on nesting and hatching Kemp’s ridleys. As the Texas coordinator of the federal Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, Shaver has educated many other scientists throughout the state in the ways of sea turtle preservation. 

“A lot of people said, ‘oh no, you’ll never be able to make a career out of that,’” Shaver recalled. “It’s been lots of highs and lows, but a blessing in many, many ways that I’m still here working with great people.” 

Rubio, who described Shaver as inspirational, and passionate about her work, said, “Rain or shine, if things go good or go bad, she’s always here, and I know she’s going to dedicate the rest of her life here too.”