Nfld. & Labrador

Endangered sea turtle died after eating garbage bag, says rescue group

A Newfoundland and Labrador whale rescue organization says a leatherback turtle that washed up at Point Lance on Tuesday died after eating a garbage bag.
Wayne Ledwell of the rescue group Whale Release and Strandings says it's common for leatherback turtles, like this one that washed up at Point Lance earlier this week, to ingest plastic as they migrate north from tropical waters. (Whale Release and Strandings)

A Newfoundland and Labrador whale rescue organization says a leatherback turtle that washed up at Point Lance on Tuesday died after eating a garbage bag.

Wayne Ledwell of Whale Release and Strandings said the group found the green garbage bag blocking the animal's gut during its necropsy.

"We turned it over, and the organs were actually in pretty good shape. There was no other obvious signs on the animal to know what had happened to it," he said.

"The stomach was intact, and the intestines, and what we found was a heavy-duty garbage bag [that] was actually blocking the gut of the animal and laced back up through part of the intestine."

Ledwell said leatherback turtles, which feed almost exclusively on jellyfish, are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastic.

The group says this was the garbage bag that killed the turtle. (Whale Release and Strandings)

"What is thought is that leatherbacks mistake plastic bags, because when they float in the water they actually balloon up a bit, [they] mistake them for jellyfish," he said. "They may just eat it anyway. They're in areas in the ocean [where] there's huge amounts of plastic and garbage floating around."

About a third of leatherbacks that wash up are found to have ingested some sort of plastic.

Oldest and largest of all turtles

The oldest of all sea turtle species, leatherbacks are also the largest, and can easily weigh up to 370 kilograms. They are listed as an endangered species in Canada.

Leatherback turtles have the longest migration routes of any reptile, laying their eggs far south of Canadian waters.

"It's really sad about the leatherbacks, because they're just neat-looking animals," said Ledwell. "A lot of people aren't even aware that they're in our waters. These are prehistoric animals, and it's hard to lose one out of the population when they don't need to die."

Ledwell said the turtles encounter plenty of problems during their migration — the longest of any reptile — without human carelessness added into the mix.

"There's ship strikes, there's entanglements, there's all sorts of different pollution," he said. "They've gotta fight to get up on a nesting beach to get away from humans to lay eggs, and then they gotta get back out into the water again.

"They've got so much problems to deal with, and all those problems originated from us and the stuff we do to oceans, we treat it like it's our sewage — we throw and dump everything into it. It's a needless waste to lose one of these animals this way." 

With files from Jane Adey