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Plastic waste responsible for 1 in 3 turtles brought to treatment center

Numbers point to ‘no less than an environmental emergency,’; all dead turtles subjected to autopsy had plastic in digestive tracts

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A sea turtle entangled in a polypropylene sack. (Shai Feldman)
A sea turtle entangled in a polypropylene sack. (Shai Feldman)

The first advanced analysis of its kind to be carried out on Mediterranean sea turtles brought to the Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in central Israel points to “no less than an environmental emergency,” with a third of turtles studied injured or killed by plastic.

One in five turtles brought to the center with such injuries did not survive.

The research published Sunday, covering the years 1999 to 2021, found that of 1,473 turtles brought in, 556 (some of whom died) had plastic-related injuries. whether from fishing equipment, polypropylene sacks, or other causes.

After birth on land, turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea, where they spend the first few years feeding on the surface of the water and being carried along on ocean currents.

It is during this stage, according to the research, that the danger of polypropylene sacks is at its greatest. Writing on captured sacks indicated that they were used for livestock feed on ships that bring live calves and lambs to the region for fattening and slaughter.

Entanglement was particularly notable from June to September, along all of Israel’s shoreline, the research found.

Debris found in the stomachs of dead sea turtles. (Shir Sasson, Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Leon Cherney School for Marine Sciences, Haifa University)

Autopsies performed last year on six green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 15 Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) found plastic in the digestive tracts of all of them.

It was significantly higher in young turtles, probably due to the locations they frequented at that developmental stage, the researchers said.

Fishing lines were found in eight percent of sea turtle stomachs.

Sea turtles hatch on land, spend many years in different parts of the sea, where they are exposed to different dangers, and return to the beaches of their birth to breed and lay eggs.

Other than plastic, they face dangers such as controlled explosions that form part of underwater oil exploration and collisions with marine vessels.

The Mediterranean Sea turtle population is under threat, especially in the Levantine basin, the report said.

Green sea turtles are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Globally, loggerheads are classified by IUCN as vulnerable. However, in the Mediterranean, they are considered a species of least concern.

The report’s authors provided a list of recommendations, among them improving international cooperation to stop polypropylene sacks from entering the marine environment, mapping the activity of sea turtles in Israeli waters, and restricting fishing activities, increasing public awareness about the dangers of plastic, the best ways of handling injured sea turtles, and more.

A sea turtle entangled in netting (Yaniv Levy, director, Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center)

If an entangled turtle is cut free in the wrong way, it can develop infections, tissue necrosis, and lose limbs. It can also stop feeding and die.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said her office was leading a process to wean Israelis off single-use plastic and that the report served to underline the intolerable effect that plastic was having on sea turtles.

Raya Shourky, Director General of the Nature and Parks Authority, noted how those working with turtles were exposed every year to the “enormous and painful damage” caused by marine debris, mainly plastic.

Among other steps, Shourky called for more marine and coastal nature reserves, and closer supervision and enforcement of all those who use the sea.

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