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.

Read page 1

"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.


Hiker Snaps Terrifying Selfie From ‘Edge of the World’

4 Nigerian Famers Cleared to Sue Shell Over Oil Spills in Landmark Court Ruling

Starbucks, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: Palm Oil Is Destroying Our Planet

Europe’s Dirty Little Secret: Moroccan Slaves and a ‘Sea of Plastic’

Show Comments ()

What Standing Rock Gave the World

By Jenni Monet

At the height of the movement at Standing Rock, Indigenous teens half a world away in Norway were tattooing their young bodies with an image of a black snake. Derived from Lakota prophecy, the creature had come to represent the controversial Dakota Access pipeline for the thousands of water protectors determined to try to stop it.

Keep reading... Show less
Zero Point Zero

Netflix’s 'Rotten' Reveals the Perils of Global Food Production

By Katherine Wei

We all love to eat. And increasingly, our cultural conversation centers around food—the cultivation of refined taste buds, the methods of concocting the most delectable blends of flavors, the ways in which it can influence our health and longevity, and the countless TV shows and books that are borne of people's foodie fascinations. However, there's one aspect we as consumers pay perhaps too little heed: the production of food before it reaches markets and grocery store shelves. We don't directly experience this aspect of food, and as a result, it's shrouded in mystery, and often, confusion.

Keep reading... Show less
About 2,700 square miles of Amazonia's forest is destroyed annually. Dallas Krentzel / Flickr

Earth's Intact Forests Are Invaluable, and in Danger

By Tim Radford

The world's unregarded forests are at risk. Intact forest is now being destroyed at an annual rate that threatens to cancel out any attempts to contain global warming by controlling greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.

A second study finds that trees in the tropical regions are dying twice as fast as they did 35 years ago—and human-induced climate change is a factor.

Keep reading... Show less
Modern Event Preparedness / Flickr

5 Billion People Could Have Poor Access to Water by 2050, UN Warns

As the world's population grows and the planet warms, demand for water will rise but the quality and reliability of the supply is expected to deteriorate, the United Nations said Monday in this year's World Water Development Report.

"We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change," said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a statement. "If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050."

Keep reading... Show less

28 Activists Arrested at Kinder Morgan Pipeline Construction Site

Despite a court-ordered injunction barring anyone from coming within 5 meters (approximately 16.4 feet) of two of its BC construction sites, opponents of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion sent a clear message Saturday that they would not back down.

Twenty-eight demonstrators were arrested March 17 after blocking the front gate to Kinder Morgan's tank farm in Burnaby, BC for four hours, according to a press release put out by Protect the Inlet, the group leading the protest.

Keep reading... Show less

Three Outlandish Ideas to Cool the Planet

By Jeremy Deaton

Climate change is a big, ugly, unwieldy problem, and it's getting worse by the day. Emissions are rising. Ice is melting, and virtually no one is taking the carbon crisis as seriously as the issue demands. Countries need to radically overhaul their energy systems in just a few short decades, replacing coal, oil and gas with clean energy. Even if countries overcome the political obstacles necessary to meet that aim, they can expect heat waves, drought and storms unseen in the history of human civilization and enough flooding to submerge Miami Beach.

Keep reading... Show less

Those Little Produce Stickers? They’re a Big Waste Problem

By Dan Nosowitz

Those little produce stickers are ubiquitous fruits and vegetables everywhere. But, as CBC notes, they're actually a significant problem despite their small size.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite Trump’s Bluster, U.S. Officials and Scientists Maintain Climate Work with International Partners

Trump has loudly declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but, behind the tweets and the headlines, U.S. officials and scientists have carried on working with international partners to fight climate change, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!