Scientists Determine Sea Turtle Dies from Multiple Man-made Causes

Photo courtesy of the New England Aquarium. New England Aquarium veterinarians and biologists work to save 420 pound endangered leatherback sea turtle that stranded on Cape Cod on Halloween morning.

BOSTON – New England Aquarium staff have determined that a 420-pound leatherback sea turtle that stranded last week on Cape Cod died from man-made causes.

During a necropsy at the Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy, scientists discovered it suffered from a major fishing gear entanglement and from ingesting a large piece of plastic, which can be mistaken for jellyfish.

The piece of plastic was approximately 11 inches by 5 inches.

Those are two of the three most common causes of death for sea turtles, along with boat strikes.

“These turtles can experience multiple impacts like plastics and entanglement simultaneously in our region,” said Dr. Kara Dodge, a sea turtle ecologist with the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

Leatherbacks and other sea turtle species often mistake undulating plastic materials in the water for sea jellies.

Ironically, Dodge had posted a blog earlier in the week before this stranding about the impact of plastics on leatherbacks. It features some amazing shell-mounted video of a leatherback feeding on jellyfish.

Dodge had written the blog this past week to mark the launch of a new phase of plastics reduction and awareness campaign being promoted by more than 20 aquariums around the U.S.

The blog post with the video can be found here.

The entanglement injury was evident upon the female’s arrival at the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital. The turtle had a major, gaping wound where its huge, right front flipper attached to the shell. The tissue in the area was clearly infected.

To veteran staff it was an all-too-familiar entanglement injury caused by a wrap of rope around the flipper when sea turtles swim into vertical ropes that go down to fixed fishing gear or boat moorings.

Despite weighing 420 pounds, the leatherback was clearly underweight. Its body temperature at intake was 47 degrees, its respiration were few and irregular and its pulse was not detectable.

A team of Aquarium veterinarians and biologists diligently worked on the turtle until the next morning before giving up their efforts.

New England Aquarium scientists are conducting research and partnering with other stakeholders to design more turtle and whale friendly fishing gear in the short term while helping to push efforts that could lead to ropeless fishing.

Since 2005, 220 endangered leatherbacks have been entangled in vertical marine ropes off of Massachusetts. There have been an additional 12 in 2018.

Currently, NOAA is in the process of evaluating whether the “endangered” status of leatherbacks should be lowered to “threatened.” New England Aquarium researchers are concerned that the significant and consistent adult mortality off the region’s coasts is fully and carefully considered.

The Aquarium recently hired Dodge, a leatherback researcher, to lead studies to better understand how sea turtles use New England waters.

Each autumn, the Aquarium re-warms, rehabilitates and later releases hundreds of endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles that strand in Cape Cod Bay due to hypothermia.

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