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On Saturday, 14 July 2018, an adult female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) was found washed up on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Fort Morgan, Alabama during a routine morning nesting patrol. The turtle was apparently strangled by a strap connected to a beach chair. The following images of the event were subsequently shared tens of thousands of times on social media and reported by local, regional, national, and international news agencies in an effort to inform the general public about the threat derelict beach gear and marine debris pose to sea turtles.
I was part of the team that found her in the morning and assisted in the data collection for the Alabama Stranding and Salvage Network. To say that the entire team was deeply saddened by the circumstances of this turtle’s demise is an understatement. During our work-up, we documented her location, collected body size information, scanned her for flipper or PIT tags, photographed her, and collected her for necropsy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are the smallest and most endangered species of sea turtle, nesting primarily in Mexico and Texas. We get very few Kemp’s nests in Alabama in any given year, though they are present in local nearshore waters where they feed on crabs and other crustaceans. Drastic population declines due to harvesting and incidental catch in fishing gear led to the species’ listing as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Any loss of this species, particularly an individual of reproductive size and to such a preventable cause, is tragic.
If a female sea turtle attempting to nest interacts with abandoned equipment, she may choose to return to the water without depositing her eggs. In severe cases, she may deposit her eggs in the water where the embryos subsequently drown. If she chooses to nest at the obstruction, the nest may be closer to the water than it would otherwise have been, increasing its chances of lethal inundation or erosion. For the hatchlings, even items as small as beach toys can present significant obstacles to reaching the water. Extending their time exposed on the beach increases their risk of predation and dehydration, in addition to draining key energy reserves necessary for the off-shore swim. Entanglement in beach equipment and marine debris can be fatal for sea turtles at all life stages, regardless of whether the interaction occurs on land or at sea.
Everyone enjoys visiting the beach. It is a chance for us to relax, unwind, and spend time with family and friends. We erect tents, umbrellas, and chairs to keep ourselves cool, combat sunburn, and hang out. And there is nothing wrong with this practice – unless we choose to leave these items, and all the other stuff we brought with us, unattended over night or during severe storms which are all too common this time of year. To combat abandoned beach equipment, many municipalities have adopted Leave No Trace ordinances which require residents and visitors to remove their items by a specified time, among other restrictions, or have the items seized and face a fine or other penalty. Such an ordinance was enacted by the city councils of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama in 2015 – forming the “Leave Only Footprints” program. Unfortunately, these ordinances do not apply to the rest of Baldwin County, including unincorporated Fort Morgan. We cannot be certain where this particular turtle came to interact with this beach chair.
The photos and corresponding Facebook posts (https://www.facebook.com/matt.ware.908/posts/10216777809179701?notif_id=1531761944671861¬if_t=feedback_reaction_generic, https://www.facebook.com/Fort-Morgan-Share-the-Beach-363244223801060/) have become a rallying cry for residents pushing for an expansion of the “Leave Only Footprints” program. The solution to this problem is simple – be responsible when you visit the beach. At the end of the day, pack up and bring out what you brought with you that morning. Remember, you are not the only one who uses the beach.
The story of this stranding was covered by numerous news outlets including, but not limited to, …
Sun Sentinel South Florida (http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/nationworld/fl-reg-sea-turtle-beach-chair-20180717-story.html)
Associated Press (https://apnews.com/22fd35429905419a97b853602a3b1197)
Global News Canada (https://globalnews.ca/news/4333571/sea-turtle-dead-beach-chair/)
Yahoo7 News Australia (https://au.news.yahoo.com/endangered-sea-turtle-strangled-discarded-beach-chair-032635011.html)
Check out the resources below to learn more about the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and the issue of marine debris.
USFWS Kemp’s Ridley fact sheet
FWC Kemp’s Ridley fact sheet
NOAA Marine Debris Program (https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/)
Sea Turtle Conservancy (https://conserveturtles.org/)
Ocean Conservancy (https://oceanconservancy.org/)
Project AWARE (https://www.projectaware.org/)