The Florida Keys have some of the most beautiful water and coastlines in the world; an enchanting allure for boaters, fishermen, and tourists. Every year millions of people from around the world make the pilgrimage. Likewise, sea turtles have been drawn to these pristine waters for millions of years and for the exact same reasons. The beauty that boaters seek is a reflection of the rich ecosystem sought by the turtles.
Unfortunately, the human migration into the Keys has wrought negative and undesirable consequences, and we are only now beginning to truly understand the full impact we make. Before humans, the Florida Keys environment experienced change slowly, on a very long time scale. The arrival of humans suddenly placed a tremendous pressure on the ecosystem in a very brief period of time, causing considerable strain on the natural systems to manage the added load. In addition to the increased pollution, depletion of certain fish and other marine populations, and coastal degradation, the introduction of synthetic material, such as plastics and fishing line, presents a brand new danger.
Unfortunately, the increase in human activity in the Keys has lead to a decline in sea turtle survival and abundance.
Turtles are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat just about anything, sort of like a billy goat. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for a turtle to break-down synthetic material once it is ingested, and very often it will cause an intestinal blockage, called an impaction. Of course, a turtle has little chance of eliminating the impaction on it’s own in the wild and this condition will usually lead to starvation. This is one reason why we need to keep track of our trash and make sure it is properly disposed of. Here at the hospital, impacted turtles are treated with a combination of Metamucil, Fiber and Vegetable Oil.
The above pictures are of trash taken from two different turtle’s intestines.
Turtle’s may also ingest fishing hooks which obviously can cause damage to a turtle’s digestive tract. If a turtle comes to the hospital with a hook inside, we treat it the same way we would treat an impaction, that is, with Metamucil and vegetable oil. With luck, the hook will pass. If the hook does snag the esophageal or intestinal wall, it will hopefully rust-out in a number of months.
We see turtles caught in fishing line and buoy lines very often. Fishing line takes 600 years to biodegrade. So, every single piece of fishing line that has ever been put out there is still there, and there is more and more every day. Monofilament fishing line is extremely strong and is very difficult to snap. If you fish, or if you see someone else’s discarded line, please dispose of it properly. Monofilament recycling bins are now located on every single fishing bridge, beach and marina here in the Florida Keys. If you pick up a piece of fishing line, you will save a life. In it’s 600 year life span, it will get caught on something whether it’s a turtle, a shark, dolphin, fish or coral.
Turtles swim by moving their flippers in a circular fashion, so quite often, they will become entangled in buoy lines. Once caught, it is very difficult to escape. Turtles may drown or loose a flipper due to loss of circulation.
Just like cars, boats can be dangerous to wildlife. Some of the damage comes from the propeller, which can slice through a turtle’s shell very easily. Other damage is caused by the force of the boat strike. A turtle’s shell is hard, but not as hard as a boat hull. These boat strikes can result in cuts and deformities. Sometimes when they get hit by the boat, it causes that turtle to float. We are unsure of the exact cause, for not every turtle with a boat strike floats. We think it might be a combination of air that gets trapped, damage to the lungs and muscles surrounding them, and nerve damage. We have termed this floating problem as “Bubble Butt Syndrome,” after one of our turtles, named Bubble Butt. Bubble Butt was the first turtle we saw with this problem at The Turtle Hospital; he came in March 25, 1989. Because of this floating problem, the turtle is unable to submerge and remains at the surface. We attached lead weights to their shell so they can submerge, but those weights will eventually fall off. This is why a bubble butt turtle has to become a permanent resident, because floating in the wild is not normal and can be hazardous.
Green sea turtles are prone to fibropapillomatosis, an aggressive herpes-like virus that causes tumors to grow. FP is found worldwide, but in different concentrations. Even though the growths are benign, they affect movement and sight, making it hard for the turtle to survive. The most common sites of growth are around the turtles’ flippers, neck, eyes, and sometimes internally. With external tumors, surgery is the only option. We do not have a cure or vaccine yet, we have to let the turtle develop antibodies to the virus to become immune, which takes approximately 1 year. Research is ongoing all over the world to determine the cause and transmission of the virus.