A giant dead leatherback turtle has washed ashore on the NSW central coast, with authorities saying it could have been killed by pollution linked to the state’s heavy rain and severe flooding.
The turtle washed up on Avoca beach on Wednesday morning, and is estimated to be a 30-year-old adult, measuring more than 1.8 metres long.
Officials at Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue believe the turtle was probably affected by the pollution produced by the flooding and intense rainfall across the east coast.
Leatherback turtles, which are the largest of the marine turtles, usually mature at around 20 years old and can live to at least 40 to 50 years.
The leatherback is considered an endangered species in NSW, with the species under high risk of extinction if threats to their survival aren’t addressed.
The species can sometimes be spotted feeding and foraging in the coastal waters of NSW, which are considered part of its migratory corridor, although sightings are rare.
Only 58 leatherback turtles have ever been seen in NSW.
A spokesperson from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service said there was as yet no confirmed reason for its death.
“There are no obvious signs pointing to how the turtle may have died, but experts from the Australian Registry for Wildlife Health are taking samples for analysis,” they said.
“The Australian Museum will also collect the skull to help better understand the leatherback population in Australia.”
The body of the turtle was removed from the beach, and will be buried by authorities.
The body of another leatherback washed ashore a little farther north at Birdie beach earlier in the week.
Mark Hamann, an associate professor in marine biology at James Cook University, said the turtles face many challenges in the Pacific Ocean.
“We’ve got a multitude of impacts in the whole ocean basin affecting the species, from pollution, to loss of eggs, loss of habitat, and fisheries by catch.”
“It’s pretty rare to see them. Across the entire east coast of Australia, you would only get a small number of leatherback turtles washing ashore each year,” he said.
Hamann said the turtle was probably affected by the pollution dredged up by the flooding in northern NSW, due to their particular diet of jellyfish.
“We know that one of the big problems that leatherback turtles have is the consumption of plastics.
“So plastic bags that can smell a lot like jellyfish can get eaten by the leatherback. There’s a lot of plastic already in the environment, so these floods are really just adding to the issue.”
Hamann said the turtle could have also potentially been killed in bycatch by fisheries.
“We know that a small number of leatherback turtles are killed every year, accidentally in various bycatch by various fisheries in Australia and internationally.”