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Friday, 17 June 2016 15:22

Saving our ocean one turtle at a time

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A sea turtle floats trapped in a derelict fishing net off the west side of Oahu, Hawaii, June, 4, 2016. Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Young and Seaman Cameron Ables, members of Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point rescued three sea turtles trapped in the derelict fishing net and brought the net to shore for disposal. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Young/Released)

Today we celebrate World Oceans Day, a global day of ocean celebration and collaboration for a better future. This year’s theme is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet.” Individuals and organizations across the planet are taking action to prevent pollution in our oceans.

The Coast Guard is known worldwide as America’s premiere lifesavers on the water. Rescues take many shapes ranging from a cruise ship passenger in distress to the crew of a fishing vessel foundering in a storm. Recently two Coast Guardsmen performed a different sort of rescue on their off-duty time. This resulted in not just three lives saved, but protected marine life, kept waters free of hazards, and ultimately cared for our oceans.

The word for sea turtle in Hawaiian is “honu.” Conservation efforts have allowed the population of green sea turtles to rebound somewhat, but they remain threatened and are covered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Petty Officer 1st Class Matt Young and Seaman Cameron Ables rescued three honu from a derelict fishing net off the west side of Oahu Saturday.

“As we approached, we saw a mass of net and fishing line with three turtles entangled and we decided to take action,” said Young. “We both slid into the water with knives in hand.”

Young attended to the first turtle he saw while Ables attended another. They found clear fishing line wrapped around the fin and head of the first turtle. It could swim a little, but it couldn’t go far from the mass of netting. Young cut the line and the turtle pulled itself free and swam away. Ables moved heavy netting aside, freeing the remaining turtles.

Realizing this mass of derelict net and line was still a hazard to other marine life and safe navigation, they made the decision to bring it to shore by attaching a line to it and towing it in. The weight and size of the netting made moving and steering their 16-foot boat a challenge. When they reached approximately 1,000 yards from shore, Young and Able swam the net to shore.

“We would swim about 12 feet then the swell would pull us back 6 feet,” said Young. “Lucky for us we are professional swimmers!”

Originally from Connersville, Indiana, Young has been in the Coast Guard for 14 years and swims competitively in races such as the annual Alcatraz race across San Francisco Bay. Ables is from Clovis, California, and has been in the Coast Guard for about 14 months. He was a varsity swimmer and water polo competitor in high school, but didn’t really develop a deep love for the ocean before being stationed in Hawaii.

As they came closer to shore, the seabed became shallow enough for them to grab rocks by hand or brace their feet on rock ledges and hold the net from being pulled out by the big swell.

Derelict nets present a real hazard to marine life of all sizes throughout the world. It can entrap and drown them. Since 1996 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has removed more than 904 tons of marine debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands alone, not including Oahu or the other main Hawaiian Islands.

The synthetic net and line materials that Young and Ables came upon had unintentionally trapped the turtles because the nylon and polypropylene materials were slow to degrade. Much of the fishing gear recovered through cleanups can be recycled or diverted into energy through local initiatives, but the best-case scenario is that it doesn’t become lost or abandoned and a threat to marine life in the first place.

After their good deed Young and Ables continued their original trip up the coast.

“It’s a good feeling to save lives, all lives. Cameron and I swam back out to my boat and karma gave us an awesome day on the water swimming with more turtles, dolphins and spotted eagle rays,” said Young.

World Oceans Day is a reminder that we all need to do our part year-round, like Young and Ables, because the ocean impacts the health of our environment and economy.

Sara Mooers

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