Reunion Island litter takes toll on turtles
St Denis: A plastic bottle cap from Indonesia, a weathered toothbrush head and a salty toy wheel.
This is not a Reunion Island beachcomber’s haul but the contents of a sea turtle’s stomach.
While world attention shone this week on the debris hunt sweeping the French island after missing flight MH370 plane wreckage was found there, 15 sea turtles were recovering from plastic rubbish-related injuries in the island’s turtle sanctuary.
Ophelie, a sleek hawksbill turtle was attempting to swim with only one front flipper in a small rehabilitation tank. The flipper was amputated after it was badly injured by a « ghost net » fishing line.
Stephane Ciccione, director of Reunion Island’s Kelonia injured turtle centre in Saint-Gilles said Ophelie will never be released into the wild because she would be easy prey.
Kelonia cares for Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley and occasionally Leatherback turtles. The centre receives about 30 new cases a year.
The most common problem suffered by the turtles is intestines blocked with small plastic particles eaten in the wild.
« Why do they eat plastic? We don’t really know. Maybe they can’t make out the difference between bits of plastic and their natural prey? Maybe alga covers it? » Mr Ciccione said.
Injured turtles lucky enough to be rescued off Reunion Island are brought to Kelonia. Many turtles die despite care. The centre’s vets’ cannot surgically remove plastic from a turtle’s digestive tracts so the creatures are fed lubricating paraffin oils.
Each morning staff find an array of small plastic debris that the turtles have excreted into their tanks. Much of that rubbish is shares similar origins with much of the debris combed from Reunion’s beaches this week.
One man on Reunion Island speculated that Malaysian and Chinese water bottles he found on the beach could be connected to the missing Malaysian Airlines flight.
But Mr Ciccione is familiar with foreign litter in these water. « With bottle labels we find [in the turtles] we know where they come from, whether it’s Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia or Mauritius. »
Reunion Island’s Marine Observatory is partly responsible for cleaning up and cataloguing beach rubbish.
Its president Michael Rard calculates that 80 per cent of rubbish collected is plastic.
On the island’s east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean, tri-annual waste collections net about 300 kilograms of rubbish a hectare.
Mr Rard said that some of the waste originates from Reunion Island but much arrives on ocean currents.
Rubbish inventories commonly include: « car shells, fridges, wheels, metallic tubes, pieces of glass, batteries and fishing nets, but mostly we find things like plastic bottles and plastic bags, » Mr Rard said.
The latter two are perhaps the greatest menace to sea turtles.
The Kelonia turtle centre hasn’t always been a safe haven for the shelled creatures.
When Mr Ciccione arrived, in 1988, it was « The Coral Farm » which farmed turtles for their meat and shell products. He personally oversaw the centre’s transition into a protection, rehabilitation and public education facility.