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‘Titanic challenge’ for an Italian hospital rescuing sea turtles from plastic

Tiny Love, a young Caretta Caretta, beached after swallowing a hook is cured in Brancaleone Turtle Rescue Center. Brancaleone, February 2020

  • A sea turtle hospital in Brancaleone, Italy saves around 50 sea turtles every year.
  • One out of every two of the turtles they save has ingested plastic, the team says.
  • Every year, an estimated 5 million to 13 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans.

In late February, a three-legged turtle nicknamed Futura was released back into the sea by caregivers at the Sea Turtle Recovery Center of Brancaleone in Italy. Futura, a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), had gotten caught in a web of nylon and rope that constricted one of her front legs. The hospital was forced to amputate the limb.

Fishing-related debris and plastics in the ocean are deadly for sea turtles. Turtles often mistake plastic for food —because it can both look like food and, as a recent study found, smell like food. Plastic can choke turtles, and puncture their internal organs. And when turtles get caught in nets, they often drown, unable to surface for air.

Every year, Brancaleone’s Sea Turtle Recovery Center rescues around 50 turtles. Half of them have eaten plastic, according to Filippo Armorio, who heads the center. Armorio’s observations echo the findings of a 2015 study that found that 52% of sea turtles have ingested plastic.

Armorio and his colleagues confront multiple challenges at once; turtles caught in fishing nets have often also eaten plastic. So in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean, volunteers at the recovery center organize weekly beach cleanups.

Studies show beach cleanups have small, local benefits, but they don’t do much for the global plastic problem. Every year, an estimated 5 million to 13 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans. Still, researchers agree that beach cleanups are an important way to build awareness of the plastic pollution problem.

In Brancaleone, recovery center staff hope the public can help encourage companies to find alternatives to plastic packaging. A few years ago, a loggerhead sea turtle the recovery center was caring for died with a stomach full of plastic. The team found plastic bags, toothpaste caps and bottle caps in its stomach.

“On average, we find only a few grams, about 10, 20, 30 grams,” or up to an ounce, Armorio said, describing how much plastic the team typically finds inside a turtle. “But in some cases, we found 70, 80 grams,” or nearly 3 ounces. “The challenge is truly titanic.”

Brancaleone is right on the Strait of Messina, a narrow stretch of the Mediterranean that separates mainland Italy from the island of Sicily. The region is rich in fish, attracting both turtles and fishers. Though plastic trash is a major concern for recovery center staff, caregivers say fishing is the main factor in most sea turtle fatalities.

Futura, the now three-legged turtle, narrowly escaped death. Sea turtles are unlikely to survive when they’re caught in a net because it impedes their ability to surface for air, and can impede their feeding. If the infection on Futura’s leg had spread, she wouldn’t have survived. After months of rehabilitation, she’s back in the wild.

“On the one hand, you’re sad to detach yourself from her,” said Giulia Mazzanti, who works at the turtle hospital. “But on the other hand, you are so happy because her life is starting again.”

Banner image of a loggerhead sea turtle with a fishing line caught in its mouth. Image by Monica Pelliccia.

CITATIONS

Pfaller, J. B., Goforth, K. M., Gil, M. A., Savoca, M. S., & Lohmann, K. J. (2020). Odors from marine plastic debris elicit foraging behavior in sea turtles. Current Biology, 30(5), 213-214. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.01.071

Wyles, K. J., Pahl, S., Holland, M., & Thompson, R. C. (2016). Can beach cleans do more than clean-up litter? Comparing beach cleans to other coastal activities. Environment and Behavior, 49(5), 509-535. doi:10.1177/0013916516649412

Schuyler, Q. A., Wilcox, C., Townsend, K. A., Wedemeyer-Strombel, K. R., Balazs, G., Van Sebille, E., & Hardesty, B. D. (2015). Risk analysis reveals global hotspots for marine debris ingestion by sea turtles. Global Change Biology, 22(2), 567-576. doi:10.1111/gcb.1307