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Biologist urges caution after finding more turtles who swallowed fishing hooks

Scott Gillingwater, a species at risk biologist, says it’s “concerning” that despite having fewer people on their conservation team this year, they found more turtles that needed to be rescued.

Scott Gillingwater says it’s because more people were out fishing this year

This juvenile spiny softshell turtle with fishing line coming out of its mouth is one of a handful of turtles the team found this year that had either swallowed or been caught on a fishing hook. (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

A team that aims to protect a population of turtles along the Thames River has seen an increase in turtles hooked on fishing lines this year.

Scott Gillingwater, a species at risk biologist who heads the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA)'s Turtle Team, chalks it up to an increase in angling and outdoor activity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our project alone found five different turtles that needed veterinary care," he said. "Generally, we'll find one turtle a season, sometimes two. With reduced staff — so fewer people looking — finding more turtles with hooks made it a bit concerning."

Gillingwater said two of the rescues were endangered spiny softshell turtles, two were snapping turtles and one was a midland painted turtle. He was able to remove the hook from one and release it on the same day, but the other four were taken to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough for treatment.

These are photos of a juvenile spiny softshell turtle that Scott Gillingwater sent to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, before and after surgery to remove a fishing hook. (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

Sue Carstairs, a veterinarian and the OTCC's executive and medical director, said the centre has seen an increase in the number of turtles admitted to the hospital because they were caught or had swallowed fishing hooks.

Out of about 1,500 admissions in 2019, Carstairs said eight turtles were admitted with fishing hooks as the primary reason. In 2020, there were about 1,000 admissions and 18 were for fish hooks.

"I think [Gillingwater's] trend is probably more of an accurate reflection because he sees the same turtles and he's following them and he's researching the same population whereas ours is all over Ontario and it's very randomly distributed, with a focus on road mortality," she explained.

Carstairs said most of the turtles that come to the OTCC are brought in by civilians.

If you catch a turtle

If someone catches a turtle with a fishing hook, Gillingwater said cutting the line isn't a solution.

"Those hooks can cause serious damage," he said, adding that he encourages people to seek veterinary care for the animal instead, even if they've invested in dissolvable hooks.

"If left without treatment there's a high probability that the animal could die."

This snapping turtle was sent to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) for treatment in August. Veterinarian Sue Carstairs, who is also the OTCC's executive and medical director, said the surgeries to remove hooks can be long and complicated, and this particular is still in their care. With some luck, she said, it'll get to go home in the spring. (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

Gillingwater said anglers can call Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre or the OTCC for help. If you've spotted a turtle that's swallowed a hook or fishing line, he said, you can also contact him through the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority.

"We can try and capture that animal and ensure it gets the treatment it needs."

Successful year for hatchlings

Fishing hooks aren't the only evidence of increased human activity outdoors that Gillingwater has noticed.

The Turtle Team collects turtle nests every summer, incubates the eggs and then releases the hatchlings along the Thames River. It's an important conservation effort that's making an impact, said Gillingwater.

"If you're looking at our overall eco-system, every animal and every plant plays a role. Spiny softshell turtles are prey but they're also a predator for a lot of animals that are along the Thames River. They're a big part and big component of what we have in the watershed in terms of our biodiversity," he said.

Gillingwater said 2020 was a successful year and the team released more than 4,000 hatchlings, despite having fewer staff and volunteers because of the pandemic.

But there was about five to 10 times as much human presence at their sensitive sites, he said.

"The presence of people disturb[s] turtles while they're trying to nest, it will cause females to abandon their efforts to create nests and it may cause them to nest in an inappropriate area. Also, with the movement of people over top of nest sites, it causes compaction and breaking of eggs," he said.

They can't flag where the sites are to protect them, he said, because there's risk of illegal poaching.

This adult spiny softshell turtle, with a piece of fishing gear stuck in its mouth and nose, was found by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority's Turtle Team this year. (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

The Turtle Team removes nests of spiny softshell turtles to ensure they are protected from people and other predators, said Gillingwater, but they have seen nests crushed in years past.

"When we release the young, unfortunately, people that are walking along the shorelines can end up crushing the young that are buried in the sand or mud below their feet."  

This kind of destruction is mostly by accident noted Gillingwater, and he's still encouraging people to go out and enjoy nature.

"But try to reduce your footprint as much as possible. [Stick] to designated trails, maybe don't wander too far onto gravel and sand bars while you're canoeing, and just, in general, respect the environment."  

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