According to a new report, around one fifth of the turtles that were harmed died after being entangled in fishing nets off the shore of Israel

פסולת פלסטיק צב ים
A sea turtle caught in a plastic bag.Credit: Shai Feldman

Zafrir Rinat Sep 19, 2022

Over 500 sea turtles have been harmed by marine waste off Israel’s coast in the past two decades, mostly from various plastics, with one fifth dying and dozens suffering from severed limbs, according to a new report.

The report, published on Sunday, was written by the Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute.

The two endangered species of sea turtles – the green and the brown – visit Israel’s shores every summer to lay their eggs. The rest of the year, they roam other parts of the Mediterranean.

According to the report, from 1999-2021 1,743 distressed turtles were picked up by fishing boats or on the beaches. Around 524 of them were harmed by waste, mostly plastic, and 122 didn’t survive even after medical treatment. This is apparently a significant undercount, as many turtles hurt in the open sea don’t reach the shore.

Some 80 percent of the turtles exposed to waste were harmed by entanglement causing suffocation or damage to limbs. The others suffered digestive system injuries after swallowing plastic residue. About half of all injuries were from fishing equipment. This includes “ghost nets,” which are nets tossed by fishermen as waste after use. They are made of synthetic, non-perishable materials like plastic, so they survive in the water for a long time, endangering marine life.

In recent years there is a clear rise in the number of turtles harmed by residue of plastic bags, which are woven from polypropylene. These are the bags used to pack animal feed, and some are thrown in the sea from ships carrying live shipments of cows and sheep. These bags are dangerous to young sea turtles, and have been documented all along Israel’s coast.

When a turtle entangled in such a bag tries to break loose, the polypropylene threads rub against its neck and limbs. The friction causes lacerations, broken bones, gangrene and at times loss of limbs. Around a quarter of turtles injured in this manner have lost limbs and arrived at the national sea turtle rescue center operated by the Nature and Parks Authority, near Michmoret. At the rescue center the turtles undergo rehabilitation, after which they are usually able to swim, float, dive and eat, and are released back into the sea. But the amputation reduces their chances of survival and procreation in the wild.

The chemistry lab at the Oceanographic Institute checked the digestive system of 21 injured sea turtles, which all showed traces of plastic waste. The body of a single green sea turtle yielded 12,000 pieces of plastic in various sizes.

The kinds of plastic found in the turtles’ stomachs varied – in addition to pieces of feed bags and fishing gear, plastic pellets found in cosmetics and detergents were also found. Plastic residue can injure internal organs and clog the digestive system. Turtles can also suffer from exposure to toxins in plastic products. The report states that Israel is in an environmental state of emergency regarding the turtles.

The responsibility for preventing the flow of waste from land to sea is entrusted to several bodies, including municipalities and the Environmental Protection Ministry. In recent years, the ministry has been providing financial support for regular beach-cleaning operations, but this is only a partial solution. Oversight and law enforcement on fishing boats is shared by the Agriculture Ministry and the Nature and Parks Authority. But these entities have no way of efficiently monitoring fishermen’s use of their gear, or to know when it is dumped in the sea.

One of the main recommendations in the new report is to increase cooperation with other Mediterranean countries, to improve oversight and enforcement on live shipment vessels. “We must enlarge safe habitats by declaring marine nature preserves and increasing oversight and enforcement on sea users, including shipping vessels,” said Raya Shorky, director of the nature authority, upon publication of the report.

As for the entanglement of turtles in fishing nets, the report’s authors recommend speeding up the arrival in Israel of devices that can be attached to fishing nets, which allow the turtles to break free. The effectiveness of such devices has already been proved elsewhere in the Mediterranean. As for ghost nets, the recommendation is to promote initiatives to import fishing nets made of perishable materials.

The authors also address the wider environmental issues and call to increase efforts to reduce the use of disposable plastic. So far, such efforts have not made much headway. The sole success was to charge for disposable plastic bags, which has led to a decrease in their use.