Strangled turtle caught up in 1.2 tonnes of plastic found on Queensland beach

“Devastated” volunteers have removed over a tonne of plastic pollution from what was thought to be a “pristine” Queensland island.

In late July, members of environmental activist group Sea Shepherd were ferried to Moreton Island, 57km northeast Brisbane, following reports that two turtles had drowned entangled in rubbish.

A woman holds her hands towards the camera, they are filled with bottle caps. A close up image of a dead green sea turtle's head, showing skull.
An endangered green sea turtle was found dead by Sea Shepherd activists. Source: Sea Shepherd / Lyndal Carmichael

A Queensland government website advertises Moreton Island as having a "relatively pristine environment”, however Sea Shepherd campaign leader Rebecca Griffiths told Yahoo News Australia she was shocked once she set foot on the sand.

“I think the majority of it is being washed up from overseas,” she said.

“We found a lot of plastic bottles with foreign writing on them.”

Plastic bottles with foreign branding collected from Moreton Island. Source: Lyndal Carmichael / Sea Shepherd
Plastic bottles with foreign branding collected from Moreton Island. Source: Lyndal Carmichael / Sea Shepherd

Plastic travels to Australia like Nemo

Dr Michelle Blewitt from Australian Microplastic Assessment Project told Yahoo News Australia that rubbish from South East Asia travels to Australia via the East Australian Current (EAC).

“Anyone who has watched Finding Nemo knows he uses the warm waters of the EAC to move down the coast - plastic does the same” she said.

Statistics supplied by Dr Blewitt suggest 80 per cent of plastics come from land based sources.

“The ocean is downhill from everywhere, so even if someone litters on the top of the hill it can end up in the water,” she said.

“If storm water drains don’t capture this stuff it ends up in the ocean.”

While garbage infrastructure in South East Asia isn’t yet as developed as it is in Australia, Dr Blewitt believes their facilities are improving.

People hold sacks and pick up rubbish on a sand dune. The ocean can be seen in the background.
Sea Shepherd volunteers clean up rubbish on Moreton Island. Source: Sea Shepherd / Lyndal Carmichael

Endangered turtle found tangled in rope

In seven days Ms Griffiths and her Sea Shepherd team picked up 1.2 tonnes of plastic, from a 17km stretch of the eastern beach.

“We were focussing on the biggest stuff - just plastic larger than a 50 cent piece,” she said.

“If you pick up the bigger pieces then they don’t break down into smaller pieces and harm birds and animals.”

A dead sea turtle with a nylon cord around its neck.
Clean up volunteers found an endangered green sea turtle entangled in fishing gear. Source: Lyndal Carmichael/ Sea Shepherd

The team’s most heartbreaking find was the one thing they hoped not to encounter - a dead endangered green sea turtle tangled in nylon rope.

“It was devastating,” Ms Griffiths said.

“We kind of knew that it had been happening but you don’t expect to actually see it.

“It was something that could have been easily avoided if the rope wasn’t discarded.”

A pile of rubbish including a fork and toothbrush mixed in with sand.
Household items washed up on Moreton Island. Source: Sea Shepherd / Lyndal Carmichael

Green sea turtles are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species and their numbers are believed to be decreasing.

A major killer of the marine reptile are large ghost nets which are cut loose by fishermen.

Dr Blewitt said that while the practice is illegal in Australia, the nets like other plastics travel down to locals beaches.

“It’s just a huge tragedy that the turtles are going to be entangled and that’s going to happen more and more,” she said.

Questions put by Yahoo News Australia to the Queensland Department of Environment about the green sea turtle, the plastic and its impact on tourism were directed back to a list of volunteer projects listed on their website.

“Moreton Island is the least disturbed, large coastal sand island in south east Queensland and an important recreation area for people who live in the Brisbane region,” they said in a statement.

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