Trashing the marine environment

Cayman’s environment suffers from many maladies. Whether destruction of habitat through development or pressure on ecosystems through food demands, many species face an uphill battle as they struggle to survive.

Unfortunately, discarded items like plastic bags and fishing line are causing many injuries and deaths in Cayman’s environment, affecting animals, birds and fish.

Not even Cayman’s iconic turtles are immune. Although some are taken intentionally during poaching, many others are injured or killed unintentionally.

“Turtles and other marine animals need a healthy marine environment and many careless actions such as anchoring in coral or dumping garbage have severe consequences. Even the seafood we choose off a menu has an impact,” says Janice Blumenthal of the Department of Environment.

Fishing line
Fishing line entanglement is the frequent cause of serious injury or death among turtles.

“Loops of lost or discarded fishing line tighten around the neck and flippers or catch on the reef, causing turtles to drown,” says Blumenthal.

Discarded fishing line can also cause other marine creatures like crabs to become entangled and eventually die.

Birds are not immune to the dangers of fishing line either.

According to Allison Corbett of Cayman Wildlife Rescue, the organisation has encountered cases where birds have become entangled in discarded fishing line as well.

“Birds can become entangled by lines to vegetation or the sea floor and this could lead to a slow death by starvation or strangulation. Also, line embedded in the bird’s flesh acts as a tourniquet, preventing the flow of blood to the affected area, possibly causing the loss of a wing or leg,” she says.

One of the cases the organisation has encountered during the past year was a yellow crowned night heron that was brought in missing three quarters of its leg. The injury was most likely caused by fishing line or a similar item tightening around the leg, cutting off blood flow and causing dismemberment. The bird was starving as it could not feed itself, and eventually had to be euthanized.

Fishing hooks can also cause infection and death in accidentally hooked animals.

Turtles are occasionally injured when they swallow fish hooks and seabirds occasionally swallow hooks as well. In order to avoid serious injury to the animals, the Department of Environment suggests using non stainless steel circle hooks. Non stainless steel hooks degrade more quickly than their stainless steel counterparts, thereby reducing the chance of death. Circle hooks are designed to catch in the mouth of a hooked animal rather than in the gut, making it less damaging to accidentally hooked creatures.

Plastic bags
Although plastic bags may seem rather insubstantial, their impact on the environment can be no less destructive.

Turtles occasionally mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favourite food, and end up consuming the bag and causing a blockage in its intestines.

Plastic bags also pose a serious danger to birds.

One of the birds brought to Cayman Wildlife Rescue was a white tailed tropic bird with a plastic bag around its head.

“Luckily the bird had not been trapped for long and a caring member of the public brought it in. After removing the bag the bird was checked by vets and released back into the wild,” says Corbett.

Other items
There are many other discarded items that also pose a great hazard to wildlife. Discarded glass bottles can appear very inviting to small hermit crabs, who climb in and are then trapped inside.

Discarded plastic six pack rings also pose a danger to marine animals and birds, as it can easily get caught around their heads and cause suffocation.

Turtles and other large marine creatures are occasionally struck and injured by boats or other powered watercraft like WaveRunners. The Department of Environment suggests slowing down in areas where there may be a large concentration of turtles and other marine life. Boaters should also contact the DoE should they hit any marine life while out boating

Fishing practices
Many fishing practices can also have unintended consequences.

Fish pots can often trap unintended species, including the occasional juvenile turtle. When the pots are abandoned or lost at sea, they can continue catching and killing fish and other marine animals for years.

Turtles can also get caught in fishing nets and drown.

Occasionally the actions that lead to the death of marine creatures are intentional but misguided.

“In the past month alone, we’ve seen two young nurse sharks killed by people. In one case, the shark was caught and dragged ashore in South Sound by the boat ramp, and in another the shark was chopped in the neck, and left to wash ashore in North Side,” says Blumenthal.

Nurse sharks pose no real threat to humans and play an important role in the marine environment. Other shark species are also vital to the ecosystem and if hooked should rather by cut loose, preferably as close to the hook as possible.

Feeding seabirds
The feeding of seabirds can also pose unintended risks for the birds.

“Feeding wild birds near fishing areas can increase their exposure to the dangers of hooks and fishing lines,” says Corbett.

Even feeding fish to seabirds can pose a health hazard, as the birds’ digestion cannot deal with the bigger bones found in big fish. Their digestive systems can become blocked, leading to death.

Coastal developments

Turtles can also face problems caused by coastal developments. If the necessary measures are not taken during the planning phase of a development, the bright lights can deter adult turtles from nesting or cause hatchlings to become confused.

“Baby turtles find the sea by looking for the brightest horizon. On a natural beach, this would be the moon or stars over the sea, but often, street lights and house lights lead turtles away from the sea and into parking lots or the road where they become dehydrated, are attacked by predators such as crabs, or are hit in the road,” says Blumenthal.

What to do
The most important action people can take is to collect discarded items like fishing line and plastic bags and dispose of it properly. Anyone out diving can also do their part by collecting discarded fishing line and hooks caught on the reef.

It is not advisable to rip out hooks or leave hooked animals in the wild.

“Bear in mind that it is illegal to possess a protected wildlife species so do not transport a turtle or other endangered animal without calling Department of Environment. We are happy to help with rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured wildlife,” says Blumenthal.

Anyone who encounters an accidentally hooked, injured or dead turtle should contact the Department of Environment. On Grand Cayman, call 949-8469 or 916-4271. In Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, call 916-7021 or 926-2342.

For injured birds and other wildlife call the Cayman Wildlife Rescue hotline on 917-BIRD(2473).