The Problem With Plastic

Sea turtles spend their lives at sea, only coming onshore to breed yearly or biannually, which is why it was unusual for ORCA Peru to be called about stranded sea turtles. However, when you consider the vast quantities of plastic filling our oceans, it becomes far less surprising.


Plastic is generally made from petroleum and unlike other materials, when in landfills it may never biodegrade. It can however break down in the oceans due to photo-degradation, with UV light rays breaking the molecular bonds and reducing the objects to smaller pieces. With such a large exposure of sunlight in the oceans, plastic items such as bottles or bags can break down in a matter of years, which you may assume is a good thing. However, it is not. Even if the plastics break down into microplastics, they still contain the highly toxic chemicals which end up being ingested by marine life of all kinds. But you shouldn’t be worried just for the sake of the aquatic animals. These toxins end up in fish that is consumed by humans and also chemicals wash up onto beaches giving humans direct contact. Similarly to the aquatic species, we are still unsure of the effects this will have on us in the future.

In 1975 the National Academy of Sciences estimated that around 0.1% of plastic produced a year would end up in the oceans. In 2015, this number more accurately grew to somewhere between 15-40%, meaning that 4-12 million metric tons of plastic washes ashore a year. This problem is much worse though as further scientists have stated that they are unsure of where more than 99% of ocean plastic debris ends up and the quantity is only expected to increase. No one knows the extent of how plastic in the ocean is affecting the full scale of marine life.

As you’ve probably seen or heard, there are several mass accumulations of plastics in the seas with the most well known being the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, also known as the North Pacific Gyre. Plastic can travel in currents and accumulate in gyres, which are areas of slow spiralling water with low winds. There are 5 major ocean gyres in the world, but the North Pacific Gyre is approximately the size of Texas with debris also extending 20 feet under into the water column. SEE Turtles has estimated this plastic island contains 3.5 million tons of trash and could potentially double in size in the next 5 years alone.  Photo: Oceanwatch.us 

The coastal waters of Peru provide a huge foraging area for several sea turtle species – Leatherback turtles, Olive ridleys, Green turtles, Loggerhead and Hawksbill turtles. However, the conservation status of marine turtles in this region is not well documented and many details about the species themselves behaviourally or distributionally are still unknown. For this post I’m focusing on the two species the Green (Chelonia mydas) and the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), due to ORCA Peru’s two latest patients – Ryana and Mariana. Both turtles were emitted as sick and blood test samples and X-rays revealed they were suffering from plastic poisoning. Veterinarian and director of ORCA Peru Dr. Carlos Yaipen-Llanos revealed the two turtles had their intestines filled with plastic which had caused a strong inflammation, disorientating them and causing them to become stranded on the shores unable to eat.

These two species are found in tropical and subtropical waters across the world, with regional groups. Both are suffering from the same problems as other marine animals I’ve posted on here before (sea lions and penguins) – pollution, global warming, nutrient shifts and a reduction in fish stocks, however there are many direct human impacts as well. They suffer from being caught as by-catch in the fish and shellfish industries. Their eggs are also collected for consumption or the illegal wildlife trade industry.  Mariana the Hawksbill turtle and her full stages of rehabilitation.

Hawksbill turtles also face the threat of becoming a trinket such as a comb or a pair of sunglasses. Their shell is often referred to as “tortoishell” and although illegal under CITES is still used in these trades. It is for these reasons that in 1982 they were listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and this was only increased to Critically Endangered in 1996, where they still stand today. This species is actually highly important to the complex ocean habitats where they are found, which in the Eastern Pacific subpopulation ranges from the Baja Peninsula in Mexico to the Southern coast of Peru. The Hawksbills can be found on many coral reefs where they feed off of specific sponge species that would otherwise out-compete many coral, plant and invertebrate species, thus maintaining the biodiversity within these threatened environments. Each Hawksbill female will lay a clutch of eggs of around 140 and many of these will never hatch which actually provides important nutrients to the beaches and dunes on where they’re laid. Mariana the Hawksbill was estimated to be only 15 years old, measuring 64cm and weighing 20kgs. They can reach up to 1 metre and weigh 80kg, although the heaviest one ever recorded had reached 127kg (280lbs)!

Green Sea turtles are listed as Endangered by the IUCN and CITES. They were the first sea turtle species to be studied therefore they are arguably the most studied species of sea turtles. Although that isn’t saying much, their foraging habitats are still not understood fully. The name does not derive from the colour of their shell that can be a variety of colours – it refers to a fatty layer found under the shell that is green. Their range is as far north as Alaska and as far south as Chile, migrating long distances to breed and forage. They can grow up to 1.5m (5ft) and weigh up to a colossal 317kg (700lbs) meaning they are one of the larger sea turtle species and Ryana measuring and weighing in at 48cm and 25kg was a mere juvenile, despite being estimated at 25 years old. The species can live to at least 80 years in the wild, giving Ryana hopefully a long future ahead of her if the quantity of plastic in the ocean is reduced!  Ryana the Green sea turtle being assessed and after rehabilitation tagged and released.

Both turtles were treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications and their intestines were pumped in order to rid them of the plastic. After 20 days of rehabilitation from the ORCA staff, interns and volunteers, they had visibly recovered and were released back to the ocean. This was the first time sea turtles in Peru have been rehabilitated and released from plastic poisoning. They were both tagged on their front flippers so if they’re found again they can be monitored.

As a tribute to yesterdays (June 16th) World Sea Turtle Day – deplastify your life! From using as little plastic yourself as possible and not using plastic shopping bags, to pressurising businesses and companies who use unnecessary quantities of plastic, to joining in or starting your own beach cleans there are many ways you can help deplastify yours and others lives as well as your environment. Meanwhile in Peru, ORCA will be continuing their research on sea turtles and rehabilitating any further sea turtles in need. Help the cause by donating at www.orca.org.pe and follow ORCA Peru on social media to get the latest pictures and news of Peru’s vast marine wildlife!  

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Prison-break Penguin

ORCA received a call from the downtown Lima police station stating that they had a penguin in custody. Her story was that she was found in someone’s house and handed in to the police, where she was kept in a form of penguin prison until the police could figure out what to do with her. Her true background story isn’t known, she may have been caught as a pet or for the meat trade or just an accidental fishing catch, however she was a good weight so she must not have been harmed. If ORCA hadn’t agreed to break her out of prison she would have been sent to a zoo, or if the zoo didn’t have room her, her future would have been very bleak. Her name became Poppy and she arrived on Thursday evening, being put to bed in a high up kennel to resemble the caves that young penguins are raised in.

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Poppy the penguin is a roughly 3 month old Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), found only off the coasts of Peru and Chile. Humboldts keep their young in caves, preferably amongst guano, and both parents take care of the young for 70-90 days, meaning she hadn’t been on her own for very long. Humboldt penguins grow between 56-66cms in height and weigh up to 5kgs. They have a distinctive black horseshoe band on their front and pink from their eye to their beak but because Poppy was a juvenile she hadn’t developed her adult moult yet. This species is highly influenced by the cold, nutrient rich waters of the Humboldt Current flowing from Antarctica, providing a productive area for plankton, krill and thus increasing fish abundance. Their main diet is small fish such as anchovies and sardines which they will swallow whole. The current population of the Humboldt Penguin is estimated to be between 3,300 and 12,000 individuals, with the IUCN listing them as threatened.

The Humboldt penguin used to be highly abundant but was first threatened by the mining of guano deposits for fertilisers, drastically reducing their numbers. Since then the species has seen large population size fluctuations. One natural threat to the species is the effects of El Niño, where the cold, nutrient rich waters are reduced, thus causing a decline in the number of fish species and therefore the penguins. The 1982-83 El Niño reduced the population from approximately 20,000 individuals to only 5,500. Although the numbers steadily rose again the 1997-98 El Niño also caused another decline to only 3,300 Humboldt penguins. Humans still cause an ongoing threat towards the species, with penguins becoming caught in commercial fishing nets, oil pollution, for human consumption, the pet trade or just a decrease in fish due to the increasing numbers of fishermen, leading to starvation. Penguins can lose their body weight very quickly if they don’t eat adequately, therefore we knew Poppy had been eating. Not only does their body weight decline quickly but so does their appetite – leading to the Penguins becoming unable to eat anything, which is a problem with receiving starved penguins in rehabilitation.

ORCA normally receives around 7 penguins a year, most brought to the house directly by people and often their appetites have decreased too much already that they develop other problems and sadly cannot be rehabilitated successfully. Birds are very sensitive and need to be given the upmost care. Another rehabilitation consideration is that penguins harbour diseases and parasites that can be easily transmitted to sea-lions. With 3 sea-lions currently in rehabilitation, we had to ensure everything was completely segregated, meaning separate cleaning tools, separate locations and even different clothes whether you were working with the penguin or the sea-lions.

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The sensitivity of penguins became very obvious with Poppy on her first full day. We had constructed an indoor and an outdoor enclosure for her – complete with a paddling pool to keep cool. Penguins thermo-regulate through their feet and therefore need to soak them regularly to cool down. It is currently summer so the temperatures reach 26C most days with a strong sun. After moving her to her outdoor enclosure she fed well then resumed what penguins spend the majority of their day doing – not a lot, generally staying in the same place and only moving to excrete in a new location. There were signs of acid in her excrements, however we concluded it was due to her not feeding the day before and the stress of being in “prison”.

After an hour, she began to overheat very dramatically – signs of this are breathing through the beak, feet going from pale to red and lying down whilst breathing through the mouth. Poppy was displaying all these signs but after placing her standing in the pool she cooled down and resumed her calm disposition. Whilst with us she would tend to overheat very quickly, this may have been a sign of an infection, therefore she was treated with a set of antibiotics to help her if this was the case, or it may just have been that not being around other penguins or in a strange environment she couldn’t behave naturally and cool herself down as normal. When it became too hot she was moved to her indoor enclosure.

At night we moved her into the kennel she’d previously been in. However we then found her displaying the overheating symptoms again, but this time she was not overheating. She looked very stressed which is not normal considering Humboldt penguins spend a large amount of their time in warm and small enclosed dens. We don’t know what had happened in her past encounter with humans therefore we had to conclude it was an anxiety attack – she’d been traumatised in some way. We were sure this was the answer and not an illness because when placed back into her indoor inclosure she was much more calm, so we decided to keep her there overnight. She still looked slightly stressed but exhausted more than anything – this penguin had been through a lot these few days! I’d become very attached to Poppy and took her as my responsibility, so being a worried carer I woke several times throughout the night to go check on her and make sure she was ok. To my delight in my half-awake state she was always standing there completely fine and resting – looking much less stressed the more I checked up on her.

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Saturday morning started with a similar routine – this time moving her to the pool every hour just incase, to keep her body at a regular temperature. Because we deemed her healthy but observed her obvious anxiety at various aspects of captivity, we wanted to return her as soon as possible because penguins should not be kept in isolation, especially not for prolonged periods of time. Her appetite was still very good, therefore in the afternoon we took her to the beach to carry out behavioural tests to see if she was ready for release. A large crowd formed but she wasn’t fazed and this became an opportunity for people to be made aware of ORCA and the rehabilitation procedures. Poppy showed signs of really wanting to return to the ocean, she’d try to dive into the rock pool we were examining her in, she ate a fish by herself in the water and was climbing the rocks – meaning she was ready for release. We couldn’t let her go there and then because at South beach at San Bartolo there are many rocks, a strong tide, many people and boats and more importantly, no penguins nearby, so we took her back to the marine mammal centre and organised the transportation for her release the next day.

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South of San Bartolo is playa Asia where Isla Asia is located. Here is a large Humboldt penguin colony, where they live in close proximity to Pelicans (Pelecanus thagus) Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus and Phalacrocorax gaimardi) and the South American Sea-lion (Otaria flavescens). Unlike in other parts of the world where penguins fall prey to sea-lions, here they live and feed in the same areas with no problems. Placed in the penguin backpack and kept on my front we climbed onto the back of the police jet ski and headed out to the island where we incredibly got to see the species of animals we’d been rescuing living in their natural environments. As we got closer to the island, Poppy became more mobile, trying to escape from the bag – she was ready to return to the ocean! She was released in a good location near many others and began to swim around successfully. We watched her swim off, hopefully to go join the others and carry out a very normal and happy life. We have all the belief behind Poppy becoming a successful adult Humboldt penguin!

As for us, we had to dismantle her enclosures and disinfect everything she’d touched to protect our other inhabitants, but only after we got the call that another sea-lion had stranded nearby, therefore we went straight to rescue the next animal in need, a reminder that currently there is a crisis and there will always be another animal that needs ORCA’s help, so hopefully they can all have the positive outcome that Poppy had.

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ORCA Peru

ORCA – the organisation for the research and conservation of aquatic animals is a non-profit Peruvian organisation based in San Bartolo, a district 52km South of central Lima. This area within the eastern South Pacific Ocean is one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world, however it receives very little protection. For over 14 years ORCA have pioneered the way forward in marine conservation in Peru by developing rescue operation protocols, veterinary science treatments, education campaigns and conservation strategies. They are dedicated to the protection of marine species, including: the South American sea-lion (Otaria byronia); Galapagos Fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis); Marine otter (Lontra felina); Bottle-nose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus); Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), Long and Short Beaked Common dolphins (Delphinus capensis and Delphinus delphis); Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti); Galápagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) and sea turtles.

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The main aim is to create a balanced link between humans and the marine ecosystem along the Peruvian coastline, by promoting ecological values through education, research, public engagement and involvement in Ocean conservation. The founder of the organisation is marine vet Dr. Carlos Yaipen-Llanos who was the first qualified marine vet in the country. Alongside Carlos are marine biologist and coordinator Connie Jones and environmental education director Elena Romero Rojas. Together with any interns or volunteers, this small team is the sole organisation protecting and rescuing marine mammals along the coastline. The base site in San Bartolo is the South Pacific Marine Mammal Centre, which was started on May 24th 2003 with “Oscar”, the first American sea-lion to be rescued, rehabilitated and released in Peru. Since then, ORCA has successfully treated over a hundred cases of gastritis, pneumonia, fractures, septicaemia and kidney failure among many other disorders. ORCA’s veterinary research has led to the discovery of cancer in South American sea-lions, the presence of distemper virus in sea-lion rookeries and the successful treatment of a bottle-nose dolphin with pneumonia.

ORCA is a non-profit organisation, with all money going towards the projects, fish, medicines, research, cleaning equipment and travel costs for rescues. The sea-lions and animals in rehabilitation are always the priority, no matter how expensive certain treatments are they are all given as much as they need. The main income is through international volunteers and interns, of which I am currently one for this month. Not only are you helping run the organisation with your donation, but the responsibility, training and experience given is completely invaluable and you are fully integrated into the team, getting involved in every aspect. The other funds are provided through donations – with sea-lions adopted, memorabilia sold and fundraisers held. On weekends the centre is open to visitors where the public can come and see the rehabilitation for themselves, which is also helping to promote awareness and connect people to these incredible marine mammals.

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There is no set plan for the whole day here – feedings and cleanings are carried out at 8am, 2pm and 8pm, taking several hours depending on the number of individuals and the types of treatments needed. During the day there are often a string of calls about stranded animals so rescues are carried out, field data is collected, research is analysed, media events are held, education events and campaigns are given, interns and volunteers are trained, general maintenance and much more.

Rescues require preparation and planning and travelling can take several hours all along the Peruvian coastline, however this travelling is necessary as ORCA is the sole rescuer of stranded marine mammals. The team drops everything in order to rescue and bring them back to the marine mammal centre where their health is assessed and treated accordingly, giving them as much treatment and time as needed. Once their health is better they are paired with others and pool tests are given to assess their natural hunting abilities and increase their competitive nature, skills vital to be released back into the wild. The aim is to get the animals as healthy and ready for release as soon as possible, so they can be released back to where they belong. Before release each individual is tagged so they can be monitored.

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Rescuing Isleña, Mark and Mina in the pool and Mina showing the small identification tag

In Peru, human impact is responsible for over 80% of marine mammal strandings. On an “average” year ORCA will release around 15 sea-lions. However, in 2014 alone there were 60 releases, demonstrating a huge crisis for the species. In October the centre managed to rehabilitate 32 sea-lions at one time. In the 2 weeks I’ve been here I’ve been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of 12 sea-lions and one penguin. These juvenile sea-lions are coming in with direct hits from fishermen hooks, starvation, or the increasingly common tragedy – poisoning from fishermen. These fishermen are putting rat poison into fish and throwing them back into the water for all marine mammals to consume. Sadly there is no fixed cure yet and many individuals have died due to the acid burning through the entire stomach and intestines causing severe gastritis and haemorrhages. Necropsies are carried out on deceased sea lions in order to see the full problem and to learn from them, hopefully saving more in the future. This is important research in order to develop a successful treatment. Afterwards they are buried on a peaceful private beach.

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Pirate, Miguella and Isleña – all victims of poisoning, with Pirate also losing her eye in a hook attack

Direct hook impacts have also been a common injury found on the stranded juvenile sea-lions. These are the hooks commonly used to kill Dolphins with. We know that the hook attacks are not accidental because sea-lions in Peru have adapted to eating just the body’s off hooked fish, leaving the head and thus feeding unharmed. They are highly intelligent mammals and therefore these terrible injuries are purposefully from humans themselves. They normally occur on the sea-lions side – the same way Dolphins are hooked, however we have found individuals with wounds on their heads and problems or the complete loss of their eyes due to the attack.

Another tragic human impact is that on Dolphins. In March and April 2012, hundreds of Dolphins washed up on remote beaches along the northern coast of Peru. Hardy Jones, executive director of the dolphin and whale conservation organisation Bluevoice, and Carlos went to a 135km stretch of the coastline repeatedly throughout April and confirmed 747 dolphin deaths, 91% being the long-beaked common dolphin. Necropsies were carried out on the stranded Dolphins and Carlos came to the conclusion that they had died due to acoustic trauma and decompression syndrome. Now this may not seem related to humans, however, seismic testing by oil companies was being carried out in the area at the time. This is one project that ORCA is collecting research and raising awareness on. Another is that of Dolphins killed for meat, where their bodies are hooked and ripped open just for a small part for human consumption, despite the toxic levels of mercury in Dolphins. There are no protection regulations against the killing of Dolphins therefore it is still a common practice in certain areas.

One of the necessary conservation methods is through education campaigns and ORCA gives school and university talks throughout the region, as well as hosting schools at the marine mammal centre itself. Campaigns such as “Deplastify Your Life” are given to help promote sustainable development and the conservation of a healthy marine ecosystem. The team always makes the time to talk to the public during rescues – opening people’s eyes to the negative affects of human impacts and creating a willingness to help and change.

ORCA’s name has considerably grown in recent years and hopefully with the continuing efforts people of Peru will begin to become more connected with their marine environment, leading to sustainable development and less harm of these highly intelligent and evolved marine mammals. Until the health of the species is restored and saved, the ORCA team will continue to pioneer research and veterinary science, run innovative projects and campaigns, rescue and rehabilitate all marine mammals in need and put everything they have into this very worthy cause.

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Poppy the Humboldt penguin who was successfully rehabilitated and released