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.
“It’s still a problem, and frankly I’m pissed. We mitigate problems that nesting sea turtles have, so I see a lot of examples of how turtles are impacted by us,” he told IFLScience, explaining that the worst threat within the Gulf is the trawling nets used by shrimpers, but that any manner of ingested or externally tangled objects can injure or drown turtles.
“We don't know where the chair came from, but we have a problem with people leaving their beach equipment behind. I am hoping that we can use this event to force some new legislation on the island.”
In an odd coincidence, earlier on Saturday, Share the Beach volunteers were out monitoring the sandy flats for signs of turtle nests (as they do every May through August) when they discovered what they believe to be the first Kemp's ridley clutch ever found on Dauphin Island.
While the adult ridley may have been beyond help, Brewer and his fellow volunteers will now do their best to guard the 65 eggs from would-be predators – be they human or fox – and schedule their shifts so that someone will be there when a new generation of rare ridleys emerges in 55 to 60 days.
“They’re worthy of our attention and they need our help in every way,” Brewer said of the charismatic species.