This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Anderson Cabot Center’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the oceans.
MCAF Fellow Captain John Flynn leads the organization Wildseas in its efforts to save sea turtles in Ghana from fishing nets and poachers. Learn more about his work in this blog post. In the post below, see how Wildseas rescued a young turtle that nearly lost its life to another growing threat, plastics pollution.
Running a sea turtle conservation program in the developing world is always going to have its challenges, but when a juvenile green turtle washes ashore barely alive that’s when things get really challenging!
On September 28 of last year, this little turtle was found by a local fisherman just above the tide line on the beach in Beyin in the Western Region of Ghana. We have had a presence in Beyin since 2011, so he knew if there was anyone who could save the little turtle it was Wildseas. Only a few years previous, there would have been a high likelihood of her being killed for what little meat she may have, despite her dramatically weakened condition. Changing attitudes takes time, but a beach seine fisherman bringing us a turtle to try and save her life was a turning point in our efforts to convince local communities to protect turtles instead of killing them, as they had traditionally done.
One of our staff greeted the fisherman and received the turtle. Wildseas Founder and MCAF Fellow Capt. John Flynn was called immediately to come back from a fishermen’s meeting in the Central Region to assess and help the turtle. Looking her over, it was clear that she was going to need a miracle to survive. Going on all previous experience it appeared the reason for the turtle’s poor condition was a mixture of dehydration and a lack of food leading to her exhaustion, probable internal infection and her stranding on the beach. The most likely cause of this: impaction. That’s a blockage in the digestive system, often caused by ingesting foreign matter, that can cause untold problems and even death for everything from a juvenile sea turtle right up to a fully grown elephant!
As turtles weaken they can no longer dive or swim against the prevailing current and eventually get carried ashore, often to their final resting place, unless they are lucky enough to be found by someone caring enough to try to help them. If you do ever happen to find a turtle along the shore, please call your local wildlife ranger or law enforcement for assistance. Putting a stranded turtle back in the water is most likely going to result in it dying as it needs help and rehabilitation. A number of staff were called to the assessment so they could learn how to identify specific problems in case another turtle were to strand when John was not around. Wanting to give the turtle a name and with little time to be wasted on formalities she was simply named Billy after staff member William, who had been the first to receive the turtle.
Having picked up medical supplies on the way back, John immediately set about giving the little one fluids. Was she still strong enough to survive? None of us knew, but we were going to give her the best possible chance we could. In the end, that’s all we could do.
After a nervous and pretty much sleepless night (for us!), thankfully she was still alive the following morning. Now, there was a ray of hope. Over the course of the next 10 days, she was stabilized by John and Joanna, both of whom took the time to train the local staff in medications, what to administer, how to administer, and when to administer. Slowly, day by day she improved and started responding to her treatment. Getting her to eat was a real challenge. Ultimately, to simply keep her alive we had to resort to force feeding.
Eventually our suspicions of impaction were confirmed when she excreted some plastic waste. In between excreting the normal fish we were giving her (some days now she would eat by herself), which seemed to be passing through quite nicely, this would be the story for almost the next seven months – that’s how long it took before all the plastic particles were excreted. Plastic that we humans needlessly created, used, and then carelessly threw away. Out of sight, out of mind. But not so, plastic is a petroleum derivative and takes forever to break down, normally into smaller and smaller particles known as microplastics. How can we expect a hungry animal of any species to be able to differentiate a piece of plastic from a piece of food? Especially when there are so many types of plastic around nowadays.
Billy was released back to the ocean a fit and healthy turtle once again thanks to the efforts of MCAF grantees, Wildseas, and in particular their staff member, Enock Agyimah, along with his wife, Philomena, who put their hearts and souls into ensuring Billy not only survived, but made a strong enough recovery to once again be able to return home.
Billy was one of the few lucky ones, one of the few given another shot at life. Much of our work in saving sea turtles has only been possible through the kind support of the MCAF of the New England Aquarium. After our experience with Billy, we were thrilled to hear of the innovative new “In Our Hands” initiative that the New England Aquarium and 19 other U.S. aquariums have committed to, reducing and eventually eliminating single-use plastics.
Where we work, in a remote part of west Africa, we see the effects of plastic pollution both on the beaches and inland every day. No wonder it is known locally as the curse of the white man. If we are to preserve what remains for both ourselves and future generations, we must change our ways and respect both the environment and our fellow co-habitants on this planet we call home.
Every one of us has a part to play in making a positive difference in the world. We’re here for a reason. Our choices and decisions matter because they are what have the power to change things. Say no to plastic. Say yes to life. For Billy and thousands of turtles just like her, whales, fish, seabirds, and pretty much all marine life, each life really is In Our Hands!