Viral video of sea turtle in distress shines spotlight on harm from single-use plastic

November 17, 2015

By Cindie Powell

When a Texas A&M University biologist posted a graphic video of researchers removing a plastic drinking straw embedded in a sea turtle’s nose, she didn’t imagine that the video would go viral with more than 6 million views worldwide — or that it would do so much to highlight the problem of plastics and other man-made hazards to wildlife in the ocean.

Chris Figgener, a doctoral student in the TAMU Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Marine Biology, was leading a research team off the coast of Costa Rica on an institutionally approved project to collect data about sea turtle mating when she and her colleagues brought the 77-pound male olive ridley sea turtle aboard to take a small skin sample and measure and weigh the animal. When what they first thought was a parasitic worm in the sea turtle’s nostril turned out to be a plastic drinking straw, the team had to make a tough decision.

Their research permit allowed them to capture sea turtles, collect tissue samples and other information, and then release the animals back into the water; it did not, however, include approval to transport any sea turtles to shore for veterinary care. They could have released the sea turtle back into the water without rendering aid, but Figgener said the straw appeared to be impairing the turtle’s ability to breathe and could interfere with its ability to smell, the latter of which is critical in finding prey. The straw was firmly embedded, and it appeared to be extremely unlikely that it would work itself free on its own without intervention, and the likelihood that the turtle would receive any other assistance was remote.

The team chose to help the sea turtle with the tool they had on board — a Swiss army knife — and over the 8 minutes depicted in the video, Dr. Nathan J. Robinson, a colleague from Purdue University affiliated with the Leatherback Trust, carefully removed the nearly foot-long drinking straw from the turtle’s nasal cavity. Afterwards, the team cleaned the turtle’s nasal passage with an antiseptic solution of iodine, observed it for several minutes to ensure its recovery, then released it back into the water and watched it swim away.

“It was a powerful video, and it has rekindled discussion of the problem of pollution from single-use plastic items in the ocean,” Figgener said. “I think it’s important to remind people, the next time they go to a restaurant, to look at their drinking straw and think about how it took this one single straw to cause that much suffering in one creature. And we don’t fully know how much more is out there.”

Figgener’s research project in Costa Rica was funded from a variety of sources, including a Texas Sea Grant College Program Grants-in-Aid of Graduate Research grant and a George Bush Presidential Library Foundation-Graduate Student Travel Grant. In response to questions from viewers asking how they could support her research, Figgener created a GoFundMe page; Victorinox, the maker of the Swiss army knife used in the video, has donated money and items to support her fundraising effort. The donations will also be used to support an effort Figgener is launching to assemble “sea turtle first-aid kits” with instruments, supplies and guidelines to better prepare the scientists to provide basic first aid during field research with sea turtles in remote locations where veterinary care is not available, as long as the intervention is not restricted by regulatory requirements.

“We often come across animals that are injured — hooked by fishing hooks in the mouth, flipper or other soft body parts, or entangled in fishing line — and nearly always we have inadequate tools to remove it,” Figgener said. “We also have seen propeller cuts, and plastic in the mouth or sticking out of the mouth or the cloaca, but the plastic straw was not expected.”

The Plastic Pollution Coalition has launched a “No Straw” campaign in collaboration with Figgener and Robinson that uses footage from the video to show how detrimental something like a single-use plastic drinking straw can be to marine life.

At Texas A&M University, Figgener has begun working with Dr. Elizabeth Browder, Associate Executive Director of the Comparative Medicine Program, to develop guidelines and a supply list for a kit to help field research teams be better prepared to render reasonable aid.

“Most of the things I think we would include in the kit would be available at your local hardware store or pharmacy, and we can make a checklist available online for people who want to assemble their own, but I want to have the expertise of a veterinarian to determine what’s really feasible and the ideal way of removing these objects that is least disturbing to the turtle,” she said.

Because nearly all of the world’s seven sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered, the myriad regulations in each nation with respect to sea turtle handling is being addressed by Figgener and Dr. Pamela Plotkin, Texas Sea Grant’s Director and a sea turtle specialist.

“We’re looking at how we can make this more international and determine what scientists who are not veterinarians or don’t have access to one are allowed to do in different countries,” Figgener said, adding that in many places rendering aid to sea turtles is a gray area similar to the “Good Samaritan” principles for providing assistance to injured humans. “The decision becomes either releasing the turtle with what’s stuck in it, exposing it to more danger, or removing the item and hopefully lengthening its life.”

To find out more about the story behind the viral video, visit the Research@TexasA&M website to watch the video at http://research.tamu.edu/seaturtle.

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.