Thursday, July 2, 2015

When Plastics Cost an Arm or a Leg


Can you locate 4 different species?
This turtle was likely well nourished from the 80+ fish species and over 100 invertebrates associated with the Sargassum. Even so, the Plastic Ocean Project (POP, Inc.) has observed a decline in the marine biota associated with the Sargassum and continues to monitor this during surface sampling in the North Atlantic ocean gyre and circulation currents. This critically endangered Kemps Ridley, falling victim to ocean plastics at perhaps just three to six months old, was otherwise fat and healthy.  Here is her story told by Karen Comstock, founding director of
Casa Tortuga and copy editor for POP, Inc.

Beachgoers came across this fat little Kemps Ridley sea turtle half-buried in the seaweed that covered a good thick strip along the shoreline on Mustang Island off the coast of South Texas a few hot summers ago. The thick Sargassum matt, where sea life thrives and baby sea turtles grow to a size more likely to escape at least the threat of sea gulls, now gave some shelter to this stranded little one. But with one flipper already amputated by plastic ribbons from either rope or vinyl tarp, her chances of getting out of the tangled mass and back into the open water were slim. 

Sargassum full of plastic as it washes in on Bermuda
Unlike the pseudo-debate over causes of climate change, there is no mistaking the human-caused, heartbreaking injuries suffered by marine life battling for survival against the overwhelming onslaught of plastic debris. Flowing out of factories and shopping malls, blowing across parking lots and down our streets, the journey of plastic is from our hands on land to river and then to sea.

The vacationing couple in their 20's who found the turtle just outside my home, covered her gently in a wet cloth and asked anyone who passed for help. Word reached me quickly. I went out to see the status of the turtle and phoned Donna Shaver's team at the Padre Island National Seashore. They directed the call to Tony Amos at the Port Aransas Animal Rehabilitation Keep (ARC) and this baby Lepidochelys kempii was soon taken to the ARC for medical care.

 In the good hands of the knowledgeable and qualified staff at the ARC, I imagine this turtle recovered and was released at an appropriate time in a well-considered place. Though sea turtles missing a flipper are as common in the sea as three-legged dogs are on land, no one can know her true fate or how long she survived. I do know her appearance on the beach that day was life changing and impactful on the tourists who found her and, subsequently, on those who heard their story and saw the pictures. 

 Seeing the tiny bones and pink flesh sticking out beyond the little tourniquet of plastic, I know that education doesn't get any more raw than this.  Our personal experiences seeing harmful human-caused results are the only thing that can augment how and when we take personal responsibility for the impact of our actions on the environment. This turtle lost her right arm to our use of plastics. Her story needs to be shared and shared widely.
Former Director of CasaTortuga.org, Karen Comstock is now advocating for the Earth and her oceans from the mountains of Western North Carolina while pursuing an advanced degree in New Media and Global Education from ASU, Boone NC.


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