Death of 400-pound leatherback sea turtle linked to three human hazards

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Leatherback sea turtle had been struck by a boat. Photo: Courtesy of the New England Aquarium

A 400-pound leatherback sea turtle washed ashore Sunday on a Cape Cod beach, and a necropsy this week revealed not one, but three human-caused factors that may have played a role in its death.

The triple whammy involved a vessel, which struck the turtle; commercial fishing gear, which entangled the turtle before or after it was struck; and a plastic bag and candy wrapper that the turtle had ingested.

Leatherback sea turtles are an endangered species for these types of reasons and many others, including illegal egg harvesting, coastal development of their habitat and fluctuations in food supply.

They’re the largest of all turtles, capable of growing to 7 feet long and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. They inhabit tropical and temperate waters around the world and their existence dates back 65 million years, but their numbers are in sharp decline in many parts of the world.

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A plastic bag and candy wrapper were found in the turtle’s stomach, revealing the perils of plastic pollution. Photo: Courtesy of the New England Aquarium

The juvenile leatherback turtle that washed ashore Sunday at Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable, Massachusetts, was studied at the New England Aquarium. Its shell and vertebrae were fractured, and its neck showed signs of strangulation by rope or other fishing gear.

Part of an aquarium statement was published Thursday by WCVB: "The very dark coloration makes them hard to see against the dark green waters of the northwest Atlantic. When feeding on sea jellies at the surface, they are often hit by recreational boaters, particularly south of Cape Cod."

Aquarium officials, however, believe entanglement was the chief cause of death.

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