The US Coast Guard has rescued a poor beleaguered sea turtle off the US coast after it became entangled in some unusual flotsam – US$53 million worth of cocaine, packaged in plastic-wrapped bales, strung together with rope.
It was likely jettisoned by smugglers on a go-fast boat, commonly used for smuggling, when they learned the Coast Guard was nearby.
“They probably felt the heat coming and got rid of it,” Commander Jose Diaz told NBC News.
The US Coast Guard was investigating a debris field when it found the vulnerable loggerhead turtle on 19 November. Team members saw it was entangled with 26 packages of the drug, which ended up totalling 800 kilograms (1,800 pounds).
“They saw significant chaffing from the lines on his neck and flippers,” the US Coast Guard wrote in a statement. “They briefed the commanding officer and went to work, carefully cutting the lines wrapped around the sea turtle and then eventually freeing him.”
They also reeled in an additional 23 metres (75 feet) of rope to prevent other ocean animals from becoming entangled.
Cocaine use and availability in the US is on the rise, according to a report released by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration in October, and it’s likely to continue rising in the short term, due to an increase in coca cultivation in Colombia.
Because the drug is usually transported by sea from Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, the Coast Guard makes regular patrols – and they’ve seen an increase in cocaine smuggling, seizing a record 188,700 kilograms (416,000 pounds) in 2016.
It’s just one more hazard for sea turtles – most species of which are at least threatened – in their natural habitat. Earlier this month, the University of Exeter announced the results of a global survey that found hundreds of the animals dying every year after becoming entangled in plastic ocean pollution.
The sea turtle was discovered while the cutter Thetis was on a 68-day counter-drug patrol in the eastern Pacific, alongside the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team, an aviation detachment from the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, and a Royal Canadian Navy maritime coastal defense vessel.
They were acting as part of Operation Martillo, a multi-national effort launched in 2012 to combat international drug trafficking along Central American coastal routes.
The cocaine that snared the turtle was just a portion of what the patrol seized: 6,755 kilos (14,800 lb) of cocaine and 6 kilograms (14 pounds) of marijuana. They also arrested 24 suspected smugglers.