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Exclusive Interview: Researchers Remove Plastic Fork Lodged in Sea Turtle's Nose

Plastic in our oceans—a problem much worse than we thought—is a major threat to marine life. Earlier this summer, turtle researcher Nathan Robinson helped remove a 4-inch plastic straw from a male olive ridley turtle's nose. Not only did the disturbing footage go viral, it probably convinced a lot of people to reconsider using these single-use, non-biodegradable items.

Still, the pervasiveness of plastic trash and its harm to aquatic life isn't going away anytime soon, with roughly 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every year. Case in point: On Dec. 6, only a few months later after saving the first turtle, Robinson was on a beach in Costa Rica and came across yet another olive ridley with plastic lodged deeply in its nostril—this time a 5-inch plastic fork. Thankfully, Robinson and biologists Brett Butler and Collin Hertz were able to relieve the turtle and she swam back safely to the ocean shortly after. Footage of the save has been posted onto YouTube, and this video is looking likely to go viral too.

"This fork, like the straw, was probably eaten by the turtle. When she tried to regurgitate it, the fork did not pass out of her mouth but went out her nose," Robinson, who works with the The Leatherback Trust (TLT), wrote on a Facebook post.

Robinson added that while he was able to remove the fork, countless other animals are suffering from plastic debris in our oceans. "Your efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle will make a difference," he wrote.

Dr. George Shillinger, the executive director of the Monterey, California-based conservation nonprofit where Robinson works spoke to EcoWatch about the incredible video as well as the increasing threat of plastic pollution on turtles and other ocean life.

Theoretically, Shillinger said, if Robinson and the team hadn't been there to relieve the turtle, the plastic fork would eventually cause an infection, impact its breathing or swallowing, or the turtle's body would probably form scar-tissue around the fork.

"It's just painful in general to have that thing in there," he said. "The plastic is certainly not going to go away and until it breaks out, the turtle would probably be stuck with it until it died."

TLT researchers are encountering more and more turtles that have been impacted by plastic recently, and one of the reasons is down to increasing rates of pollution, Shillinger said.

"In many parts of Latin America it's a big problem because sewer systems often aren't as upgraded as you'd find here in the states," he said. "Plastic waste works its way from backyards, waste dumps and car windows into watersheds and eventually everything flows downhill to the sea."

Olive ridley turtles gather in large quantities on nesting beaches on the coasts of Central America. Due to the high density of turtles, many turtles show signs of plastic impacts, Shillinger said. Photo credit: Sean Williamson / The Leatherback Trust

While it's actually uncommon to see straws or forks stuck in turtles' noses, plastic's devastating impact is mostly unseen. Plastic is often ingested by turtles that mistake it for food. It fills their stomach and causes chronic health problems, disease, infection and impedes turtles' normal behaviors and physiology, Shillinger said.

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"We've known for a long time that marine organisms consume plastics. Turtles in particular are vulnerable," Shillinger said. Some turtle species, such as Leatherbacks, are particularly prone to consuming things like plastic bags because they mistake it for jellyfish.

Plastic waste, of course, is a problem on a global scale. "It's just the tip of the iceberg," Shillinger said. "This was an isolated incident involving a single turtle in a small area off a nesting beach in Costa Rica. Just imagine globally what's happening."

Besides turtles, plastic litter harms the entire ocean chain, from whales, to fish and even plankton as larger pieces of plastic break down into microscopic pieces.

"This leads to long-term systematic population health problems," Shillinger said.

Nathan Robinson: "Although happy that the fork was free, my first feeling was one of disgust. It is painful to think that the single-use plastic objects that we dispose of so freely can cause so much destruction for marine life." Photo credit: Nathan Robinson / The Leatherback Trust

Earlier this year, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia and Imperial College London released a report with the startling finding that 90 percent of seabirds today have eaten plastic, and if humans don’t stop dumping plastic into the ocean, it’s predicted that 99 percent of seabirds will swallow plastic by 2050.

When asked if this trend is also happening with turtles, Shillinger replied without hesitation: "Totally. Turtles are occupying the same habitats ... Without a doubt these animals are consuming plastics in areas where they'd otherwise go to consume prey."

"It's something we have to monitor across populations and across the life history of different species," he added.

That said, if you ever come across a turtle impacted by plastic, Shillinger advised that you should quickly find the nearest rehab center or veterinarian to help. But if you happen you be on a beach in the middle of nowhere with no expert nearby, you should remove the object yourself in order to save the animal.

"Act with alacrity and without hesitation," he said.

As for what can be done about reducing our own plastic footprint, Shillinger said that it all starts with consumer awareness. "We'd love for people to do what they can, to think about what they wear, what they eat, and think about their environmental impact and everyday choices," he said.

Robinson wrote on a TLT blog post: "As long as we keep using single-use plastic, these instances are going to become increasingly more common. We are all going to have to make an effort to reduce plastic pollution if we don’t want to see more events like this."

To learn more about TLT's work, check out their website at leatherback.org.

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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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