Alarming find inside turtle highlights 'increasing' problem: 'Never seen this many'

The medical team at Taronga Zoo Hospital said the animal was in a very bad way when it was rescued at Lake Macquarie, NSW.

A harmful find inside the stomach of a turtle has highlighted a major problem plaguing Australian marine life with calls for Aussie fishermen to be more mindful around the ocean.

The 50kg green sea turtle was rescued by a local resident in Lake Macquarie, north of Sydney, who found the animal "weak and floating in the water" before taking it to Taronga Wildlife Hospital where an X-ray revealed an all-too-common problem.

X-ray showing fish hook inside turtle's stomach.
An X-ray revealed the turtle had swallowed seven fishing hooks. Source: Supplied/Taronga Wildlife Zoo

The turtle — believed to be a 40-year-old female — had swallowed seven fishing hooks and had its "intestines pierced by fishing line," senior veterinarian Larry Vogelnest revealed on Wednesday. He said the animal was in a very bad way when it arrived at the hospital this week and its likelihood of survival was slim.

"I've never seen this many fishing hooks inside one turtle so it was a very difficult and delicate surgery," he said. "I was very concerned that this turtle wouldn’t survive because of the extent of the damage".

Harmful fishing gear an 'increasing problem'

Taronga Wildlife Hospital Rescue and Rehabilitation Coordinator, Libby Hall, told Yahoo News Australia they now see more animals impacted by fishing hooks and fishing lines than they used to. "It's an increasing problem," she said.

"This problem is not only impacting marine turtles, but seabirds like cormorants, swans and pelicans as well. We have even seen species like herons, magpies, magpie-larks and tawny frogmouths getting entangled in discarded fishing line, so it is a huge problem," she explained.

Green turtle swimming in pool at Taronga Zoo.
The 50kg turtle is now recovering after an extensive five-hour surgery. Source: Supplied/Taronga Wildlife Zoo

While fishing hooks are problematic, Dr Vogelnest said the fishing line can be worse and can often lead to a "slow and painful death". Over time the intestines can "bunch up" when entangled with the line which will inevitably cut through the organ causing damage.

Marine Scientist Caitlin Smith said discarded fishing gear — including nets, hooks and lines — is a "significant threat" to all animals, but particularly turtles that inhabit coastal areas. She said most areas of high recreational fishing activity supply bins specifically for discarded fishing gear. "However, lines often get cut or lost," she told Yahoo.

Medical team at Taronga Zoo Hospital helping large sea turtle before operation.
Medical team at Taronga Zoo Hospital helping a sea turtle rescued in Lake Macquarie, NSW. Source: Supplied/Taronga Wildlife Zoo

Fishers urged to be more responsible

The Taronga Wildlife Hospital team is urging fishers — both commercial and recreational — to be mindful of their fishing lines and to seek assistance in the event they accidentally hook a turtle while fishing. Alexia Wellbelove, fisheries and threatened species campaign manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told Yahoo "it's all about responsibility and care for our ocean".

"We need to be conscious of where any product — whether that be hooks or plastics — is going," she said. "And if a fisher gets an animal trapped, then they need to deal with it rather than just cutting the line and letting the animal go".

Discarded fish hook and line found on Sydney Harbour.
Discarded fish hook and line found at Sydney Harbour last month. Source: Supplied

This turtle — which underwent a risky five-hour surgery — is the sixth to be rescued and saved by Taronga Wildlife Hospital this year. Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle occur in Australian waters, and all six are listed as endangered or vulnerable.

"While she’s not quite out of the woods yet, she is eating and doing well so I feel quietly optimistic about the outcome, even if that does include a long road to recovery," Dr Vogelnest said.

Ms Smith said it's not just fishing material causing harm to turtles. "Turtles are subject to a myriad of threats such as climate change, boat strike, plastic ingestion, chemical pollution, fisheries bycatch and many others," she said.

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