The Coast Guard Rescues Endangered Sea Turtles Entangled in Ocean Plastic

A drug law enforcement crew switched missions when it encountered the two trapped animals at sea.
Jun 8, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Just in time for World Oceans Day today, two endangered sea turtles have survived a threat that would likely have killed them, thanks to a chance encounter with the U.S. Coast Guard.

While patrolling waters “off the west coast of Central America in a known drug transit zone” on May 9, a small team from the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton checked out a “suspicious package that they thought was narcotics” floating in the water, said Lt. Donnie Brzuska of the Coast Guard Pacific Area Command in Alameda, California.

RELATED: Blue Planet—the Fight to Save Our Oceans

But when they pulled in the mound of floating plastic junk, it was not marking the location of an illegal drug cache. It was tangled around two juvenile sea turtles.

So the crew shifted gears to help the animals—each weighing roughly 70 pounds—by cutting them out of the deadly ocean plastic mess. “They freed the first one pretty easily,” said Brzuska, but “had to pull the second one on board, because the line had become wrapped around its neck pretty tightly.”

Marine debris has become a major threat to ocean life. Researchers believe that tens of thousands of animals across hundreds of species have been injured or killed by encounters with marine garbage, much of it made of plastic, including discarded fishing gear.

Scientists recently estimated that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans.

Staff at the Hopkins Marine Station, a Stanford University research center in Monterey, California, identified the first animal as an olive ridley turtle, which has federal endangered and threatened species protections under U.S. law.

The second is a loggerhead turtle, said Dana Briscoe, a research scholar in oceanography and ecology at the Hopkins Marine Station. From the north Pacific population’s main breeding ground off the coast of Japan, “they disperse across the central Pacific. So you’ll see them getting caught up in fishing gear,” Briscoe said.

RELATED: The Unseen Slaughter Under the Sea

Some migrate to an area off the coast of Baja California to live and forage for decades. “Once they’re ready to reproduce, which we believe is at 30 to 40 years of age, they swim back to Japan to mate and stay there for the rest of their lives,” she said.

The loggerhead is also a federally protected endangered species.

Adult olive ridley turtles weigh around 100 pounds, while loggerheads can grow to one or two tons. At 70 pounds each, the two rescued sea turtles are not yet old enough to mate. “At this point their main goal is to eat as much food as they can find and grow to maximum capacity to be reproductively fit,” Briscoe said.

So, Why Should You Care? Sea turtles have been around for more than 100 million years. Six of the seven species are threatened with extinction because of human actions, including overhunting of animals and eggs, destruction of important coastal feeding sites and nesting grounds, and marine pollution. Many drown after being caught in fishing nets or on longlines.