Photo by Marco Ansaloni
Saving Turtles - October 05
A hundred years ago, it was common to spot dolphins, sea turtles, whales and even monk seals off the Catalan coast. These animals were also seen, some more frequently than others, near Barcelona’s port, sparking the ire of local fishermen who claimed they devoured too much of the coastal fish.
That sea so literally brimming with life is now, of course, a very different place. All large marine animals of the Mediterranean are threatened, with some species on the fast track to extinction. The playful monk seal, once thought to bring good luck to those who spotted it, has long since vanished; a few hundred, not more, are known to exist in remote North African waters and in the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite being over-developed, over-fished and over-polluted, the Catalan coast is still visited, miraculously or not, by some species of threatened marine animals, such as sea turtles and dolphins. These infrequent visits, however, are by no means always voluntary. Each year, a great number of sea turtles, some 20,000 in the northwest Mediterranean alone, are hooked by the long lines of commercial fishing boats. Though most turtles are cut free and thrown back into the sea, the hooks are often left stuck in their throats, causing an agonizing, drawn-out death. Some luckier turtles, however, are brought by enlightened fishermen directly to CRAM (the acronym in Catalan for the Conservació i Recuperació d’Animals Marins), a unique centre on the Maresme coast dedicated to the conservation and recovery of marine animals.
CRAM is a remarkable institution, combining a veterinary hospital, a half-way home for injured and traumatized sea animals, and an educational and research centre that counts more than 70 volunteers spread up and down the Catalan coast. A private foundation, mostly funded by individual donations, it was officially created in 1996, although its origins date back to the tragic, massive beaching of striped dolphins that took place along the Catalan coast in 1991.
CRAM’s founder, veterinarian Ferran Alegre, participated in the attempt to save the dolphins, and the event marked his professional career. The beached dolphins died in the hundreds from a viral infection similar to distemper, and Alegre, who was municipal veterinarian for Premià del Mar at the time, realised that he and the rest of his colleagues were dramatically unprepared to help the animals. No infrastructure for dealing with such circumstances existed in Catalunya, nor, for that matter, anywhere else in Spain.
To help remedy the situation, Alegre at first created a publicly-financed centre for assisting endangered marine animals, the first of its kind to exist in the Mediterranean. The public funding for the initiative, however, was minimal and significantly limited the centre’s ability to act. For this reason, in 1996, the centre became a private foundation; greater available funds have since allowed CRAM to provide immediate, round-the-clock assistance to endangered animals, as well as to conduct much needed research into their plight.
At the centre’s installations near the port of Premià del Mar, veterinarian Maria Parga takes out a stack of some 100 plastic bags, each labeled with a date and name. The bags are filled with odds and ends of man-made refuse, plastic bottle caps, bits of balloons and plastic drinking straws, tampons, pieces of rubber and a myriad other half-recognisable items of obviously artificial origin.
“The garbage inside these bags was found in the stomachs of the sea turtles brought in to the centre,” Parga said. “Sea turtles are omnivorous and when they find these items in the sea, they think it’s food. Floating plastic bags, for example, resemble jellyfish, one of the turtles’ favourite foods. Some turtles manage to expel this junk in their excrement and survive, most others die because the objects block up or damage their digestive system.”
As Parga’s sample bags reveal, ‘small garbage’ accounts for far more damage than most people realise. With over 300 million people living on the Mediterranean coast, and millions more visiting each year as tourists, the personal garbage thoughtlessly thrown away on the beach or in the sea is devastating marine life. Up to a kilo of plastic junk has been discovered in the stomach of a single adult sea turtle, while in the digestive tract of a dead whale, a solid half-metre-wide ball of sheet upon sheet of compressed plastic bags was found.
CRAM’s primary patients are loggerhead sea turtles, and the various species of dolphins and whales found in the Mediterranean. Less frequently, the centre has aided rays (although in this part of the Mediterranean rays are not listed as threatened) and sea birds, as well as other creatures of the sea with dwindling populations.
One particularly touching account is the story of Ulisses, a young striped dolphin that beached on the shore near Mataró. Because the dolphin seemed to be suffering from an illness, he was immediately rushed to CRAM; several parasites were removed from his body, and for the first few days he suffered potentially fatal fainting spells in which he would sink to the bottom of the pool. The young dolphin was cared for around the clock and within a week his condition began to improve steadily—he began to be able to catch his own live fish in the pool, and instead of swimming in listless circles he became more active and took longer underwater dives.
A short time later, it was decided to return Ulisses to the sea, ideally to a passing group of dolphins. A group was spotted some 14 kilometres from shore and Ulisses was carefully transported to their vicinity and set free. As the biologists at CRAM noted, an event of this kind for a dolphin is rare, given that most beached dolphins are helped directly back into the sea where they are monitored until they are clearly all right, or else die.
CRAM has been highly successful with sea turtles, a generally gentle animal that may live over 50 years and grow to 120 kilogrammes. In 10 years, CRAM has rescued, cared for and returned to the sea more than 500 sea turtles, or 98 percent of the turtles that have come its way. Manel Gazo, CRAM’s director, is quick to point out that many less turtles would be saved if it weren’t for the collaboration of fishermen. “I’d say that about 80 percent of Catalan commercial fishermen work with us by bringing injured turtles directly to the centre,” Gazo said. “Their help is essential, because it means we can immediately remove the hooks form the turtles’ throats before infections begin and make sure they are healthy when they go back into the sea.”
Antonio Vilanova, a commercial fisherman who has collaborated with CRAM since the centre’s earliest days, said that so far this year four turtles have been caught on his lines. “But every year we catch less turtles,” he said. “Maybe this is because we’re now fishing much further from the coast.”
In addition to the inadvertent swallowing of fish hooks, death by pollution and the wholesale disappearance of their nesting grounds caused by over-development of beaches, sea turtles face other dangers. One woeful, permanent resident at CRAM is ‘Page’, a young turtle with a large gash in his shell probably from a ship’s hull or propeller. The wound left the animal’s hind flippers paralysed, which if he were left in the open sea would mean certain death.
Accompanying Page is another permanent CRAM resident, ‘Cuatro-por-cuatro’, a big 100-kilogramme male sea turtle who spent 25 years in captivity as the house pet of a fisherman before he arrived at the centre. Unable to fend for themselves, these handicapped but still majestic animals are cared for by staff and volunteers (CRAM accepts volunteers with or without professional background). And, as long as no pressing medical situation has to be dealt with at the centre, visitors are welcomed. Indeed more than 8,000 people visit each year, including 6,000 school children, providing a ray of hope that we may yet still learn to respect the sea and the life in it.
Camí Ral 239
Premià del Mar
Tel. 93 752 4581
First published October 2005.