What's Bringing a Sharp Rise in Sea Turtles to the Rescue Center?

45 sea turtles were treated at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center for plastic-related injuries this year, as opposed to single-digit numbers just a few years ago

Zafrir Rinat
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A sea turtle at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Mikhmoret, December 18, 2019.
A sea turtle at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Mikhmoret, December 18, 2019.Credit: rami shllush
Zafrir Rinat

The National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Mikhmoret has seen a sharp increase in the number of animals being brought in for treatment as a result of injuries caused by plastic debris. The center treated 45 sea turtles for plastic-related injuries this year, a rise from single-digit numbers just a few years ago.

The figures were included in the annual summary of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which operates the rescue center. Of the 144 that were treated by the rescue center this year, 75 were rehabilitated and returned to the sea.

Many of the injuries occur when plastic bags become entangled around the turtles’ heads or extremities. The center’s director, Yaniv Levy, said the precise reason for the steep increase in such injuries this year is not clear. The bags, he said, might have contained feed used for marine shipments of livestock to Israel and were tossed overboard after their use. “The plastic threads unravel and cause [the turtles] various injuries,” Levy said.

“Another possibility is the bags contained food for fish raised in offshore cages in countries like Turkey.” Levy stresses that this is only a theory and says there’s no way to know how the bags got into the sea.

The rescue center treated green and brown , and Levy says individuals from both species were injured by plastic threads. Most of the turtles were brought to the center in summer, Levy says, adding that the reason for that is also unclear. Most were relatively young, and weighed between from 500 grams to 3 kilograms (1.1 to 6.6 pounds).

Several turtles with shock wave injuries arrived at the rescue center early in the year. Dozens more were found dead on beaches with the same injuries. Rescue workers initially thought the injuries were caused by seismic testing for petroleum exploration, but the theory was rejected. To date no explanation has been found for the extensive harm to the turtles.

In addition to the hazard to sea turtles of waste, the marine animals can become entangled in discarded fishing lines and nets. Swallowing (microplastics) poses an additional danger.

In a survey about the entanglement of turtles published two years ago by the Center for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter in England, the researchers estimated that hundreds of sea turtles die every year after becoming entangled in discarded fishing gear.

But they said the most serious threat came from eating plastic waste the turtles misidentified as food, or that was inside their food sources. A survey of sea-turtle nests on U.S. Gulf Coast beaches found dozens of plastic particles in every nest. A study that examined the digestive systems of 102 turtles found dead in various regions around the world found long plastic fibers in all of them.

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