One of our Sea Turtle Healing Center’s newest patients, a young green sea turtle named Horchata, was recently found on a reef in Satellite Beach by East Coast Biologists during a research trip. Horchata was discovered with a recreational fishing hook deeply embedded in their flipper. Our Zoo’s veterinary team was able to surgically remove the hook and treat the turtle using negative-pressure wound therapy. However, when it comes to Horchata’s healing process, there were more than external injuries to consider.
The day after Horchata’s arrival, there was a significant amount of plastic showing up in their stool. Our Healing Center team was quick to remove any plastic in the tank to ensure Horchata wouldn’t eat it again. A few days later, the turtle passed even more plastic pieces, amounting to quite the collection. An ultrasound was used to evaluate Horchata’s lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract to ensure they didn’t suffer any complications. Luckily, the plastic doesn’t seem to have caused any untreatable issues in Horchata. However, that’s unfortunately not the case for many sea turtles.
All seven species of sea turtles are specialized eaters, meaning they stick to eating the same foods. Some sea turtles will mistake floating plastic bags for similarly translucent jellyfish. Younger sea turtles — like Horchata — will often ingest the plastic rubbish that has become entangled in their natural food source of seagrass or algae. The consumption of plastic can quickly become a life-threatening emergency. The sharp edge of hard plastics may cause damage to the GI track resulting in bleeding. Softer plastics, like shopping bags, can create a blockage in the intestines. Serious injuries or death can occur after this tragic case of mistaken identity. In addition, these plastics take up space in the turtles’ stomach making them feel full, robbing their bodies of vital nutrition.
Our veterinary staff is occasionally able to identify the source of the plastic that winds up in their turtle patients, including a case where one boat’s litter was likely thrown overboard. Unfortunately, while careless acts can often be the cause for sea turtle distress, well-intentioned individuals can also add plastic pollution to our waterways. There are several steps you can take to start ensuring that your waste isn’t wreaking havoc on fragile ecosystems. For instance, even if you throw away your garbage into designated containers at beaches and riverside parks, wind and animals can still remove the litter that later gets blown into the water. A better way to handle your trash is to simply pack up what you’ve brought out. By taking your trash with you and disposing of it at home, you are preventing your garbage from mistakenly winding up as pollution.
Shanon Gann, the Sea Turtle Healing Center manager, also adds other ways you can help combat this problem. “Make the conscious decision to act in your life to refuse single-use plastic. Become active in the community by donating your time or money to Keep Brevard Beautiful or other organizations that routinely clean up garbage from our shorelines and waterways.” With these simple steps, we can help one sea turtle at a time avoid a potentially fatal error.
Brevard Zoo is an independent, not-for-profit organization that receives no recurring government funding for our operating costs. Your generous support enables us to continue to serve our community and continue our vital animal wellness, education and conservation programs.