Though instances of human waste smothering marine ecosystems are happening every day, all over the world, an incident from this past weekend has rocked the conservation community because it involved a critically endangered species.
The carcass of a female Kemp’s ridley turtle – the rarest species of sea turtle in the world – was discovered on the beach of Dauphin Island, Alabama, on Saturday morning. The obvious cause of death was a rope, attached to a red fabric and metal camping chair, that had become tangled around its neck.
Graphic images posted on Facebook by members of the local turtle conservation organization Share the Beach show the deep, choking wound that the animal sustained.
"We did this, turtles would not encounter chairs if it were not for us," said Richard Brewer, a volunteer with the nonprofit and member of the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN), told Fox10 News. "Heartbreaking. Truly heartbreaking."
The Kemp’s ridley turtle, the smallest species of sea turtle and a close relative of the loggerhead, has a large native range – from the cold Western Atlantic waters to as far north as New Jersey and the entire tropical Caribbean Sea – but is known to nest exclusively on beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Ridleys were abundant throughout this region, until widespread hunting in the mid-20th century drove them to the brink. They have been under the protection of the US Endangered Species Act since the program’s creation in 1973.
In the decades since, continued harvesting in Mexico (where the main nesting site is located), habitat destruction, and entanglement in human detritus – fishing gear in particular – have prevented the species from recovering its former numbers.
For Brewer, whose role in STSSN means he is a first responder when a distressed turtle is found, the dead female is simply the latest victim of a pervasive phenomenon.