A recent spate of small turtles washing up on Australia’s eastern shores has highlighted concerns about marine debris by scientists and animal welfare groups.
Two turtles, one found on North Stradbroke Island in Queensland and a second found at Fingal Head NSW have triggered alarm bells. Both animals were around 20cm long and died with guts choked with marine rubbish.
"The first turtle was a tiny 22 cm green turtle brought into The University of Queensland’s Moreton Bay Research Station on North Stradbroke Island for care," Station Education Officer Dr Kathy Townsend said.
"The emaciated immature female was extremely weak and severely dehydrated and was suffering from floating syndrome which is where food trapped by foreign material starts to decompose, leaking gases into the body cavity and causing the animal to float.
"After dressing the turtle’s wounds and placing her on a drip, we kept her under observation over night. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her illness and died the next morning.”
A necropsy (autopsy) was performed on the turtle and discovered that her gut was choked with decomposing seagrass and marine rubbish.
“Bits of plastic shopping bags, black plastic rubbish bag, parts of plastic bottle tops, plastic thread, party balloons - and even a bit of a flip flop (thongs) were found lodged in the animal’s gut," Dr Townsend said.
"Over 40 individual pieces of rubbish were accounted for, the majority of it plastic-based.
“The final cause of death was identified as gut impaction and septicaemia caused by the marine rubbish."
A week later a slightly smaller turtle (19cm shell length) was treated by the Australian Seabird Rescue Wildlife Link Centre, at Ballina, NSW.
Lance Ferris, the Centre`s Director and long term wildlife advocate, said this turtle also died from the consumption of marine rubbish.
"We found over 70 pieces of plastic and small bits of fishing line in its gut,” he said.
“Turtles that are between 5 and 25cm shell length disappear from our view in a period known as their `lost years` where they are rarely seen close to shore.
"These juvenile turtles feed on jellyfish and squid found in the great ocean currents. The plastic that these animals would have consumed would have been located in the open ocean.”
Craig Bohm, Campaign Coordinator with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the two turtles highlighted the impact of human rubbish has spread beyond the shores.
"Animals such as these juvenile turtles go for years without seeing land, yet they too are being affected by human rubbish,” he said.
Dr Townsend said that according to advice from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, there were many things people could do in their chomes, at the shore and on their boats to reduce the impact of rubbish on marine life.
• In homes - avoid using plastic bags, ask for a box and recycle wherever possible;
• On the shore - pick up rubbish and don`t use bay and beachside rubbish bins if they are already overfull;
• Onboard - stow rubbish carefully and don’t let it blow over the side. Be particularly careful with fishing bait bags and other plastic items.