Sea Turtles and Plastic…Read On!

Our Plastic Food Chain -or- The Turtle Who Pooped Plastic

As ocean pollution experts meet in Hawaii, disturbing new report chronicles effects of decades of plastic pollution on sea turtles—and what we can do about it.

Honolulu, 22 March 2011

In 2009, marine biologists with Disney’s Animal Programs in Melbourne Beach, Florida, discovered a green sea turtle that was having trouble digesting food. They found that a piece of plastic had lodged in the turtle’s gastrointestinal tract. When biologists removed the obstruction, the turtle defecated 74 foreign objects in the subsequent month. Among the items documented were four types of latex balloons, five different types of string, nine different types of soft plastic, four different types of hard plastic, a piece of carpet-like material, and two tar balls to boot.

The list of items from this one turtle read like a catalog of a growing and deadly concern for virtually all marine animals—single-use plastics are having a lethal effect on animals living in the sea.

Experts on plastic pollution from around the world, determined to solve this growing problem, have gathered this week for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, a mecca for green sea turtles.

Now, in a recent editorial published in the Marine Turtle Newsletter, marine biologists Colette Wabnitz, PhD, of the University of British Columbia and Wallace “J.” Nichols, PhD, of the California Academy of Sciences, lay out the entire disturbing history of plastics in the ocean, from the first scientific report to the latest surveys, to call attention to the concerns from 1972 to today. The report is grim, but provides a ray of hope in the form of proactive steps that can and should be undertaken to curtail overproduction and careless discard of single-use plastics.
The authors were careful to acknowledge that certain plastics have done much good in the world. The report firmly lays the blame at the feet of so-called “disposable” plastics: commonly used beer cups, water bottles and caps, grocery bags, plastic utensils, and so forth, intended to be used just once and thrown away. While these plastics are cheap and convenient, they are also durable and buoyant—making for a potent and deadly combination in the water.
Though plastics like these do break down from exposure to sunlight and other elements, the molecules of plastic never fully biodegrade—they just break into smaller and smaller pieces but never completely disappear. Eventually, many of these small particles get blown or washed into tributaries that feed rivers which flow to the ocean where plastics coalesce in ocean currents. Here they swirl in the eddying currents forming a  sort of plastic soup where they float virtually forever and are often—the whole pieces and broken bits—ingested by the creatures of the sea. Once in the guts they can do great harm, or even kill, animals such as sea turtles.

Among the more startling facts reported is that 1 billion single-use plastic bags are distributed free of charge every day, of which an estimate 0.2-0.3% make their way to the ocean. Even that small percent means hundreds of millions of bags each year are left to float in the sea. In particular, the crisis has had a deleterious effect on sea turtles, which mistake the floating bags for jellyfish, a favorite food.

All seven species of sea turtle are listed as endangered on the World Conservation Union’s “Red List” of species in danger of extinction, a situation made even more urgent for many animals by plastic pollution.

“Last year I counted 76 plastic bags in the ocean in just one minute while standing in the bow of our sea turtle research boat at sea in Indonesia”, reports Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences and coauthor of the review. “The science is becoming crystal clear: sea turtles and plastic pollution don’t mix well. Sea turtles have spent the past 100 million years roaming seas free of plastic pollution, and are now sadly the poster animal for impacts of our throw away society on endangered species”, states Nichols.

Other facts reported by Wabnitz and Nichols and explicitly illustrated in the accompanying photo library, include:

• Worldwide, plastic pollution is adding to the stress on endangered ocean wildlife, like sea turtles;

• Plastic can be ingested by or entangle sea turtles and can physically interfere with their nesting activity on beaches when it accumulates in large amounts;

• Approximately half of all sea turtles surveyed had ingested plastic items; and,

• Micro-plastics are accumulating in molluscs and crustaceans sea turtles eat.

The authors were not without suggestions for corrective measures to ameliorate or end the plague of plastics in the ocean. In addition to broader policy efforts recommended by the authors, were simpler—”off-the-shelf”—personal behavior solutions, including:

• Avoiding plastic-bottled beverages;

• Buying products with minimal or reusable packaging;

• Buying in bulk whenever possible to reduce packaging;

• Buying used items;

• Seeking out reusable shopping and produce bags like those made from renewable sources (e.g., natural fibres) and always bringing them along;

• For coffee and or tea – bring your own mug;

• For food – bring your own container.

“Sea turtle researchers and conservationists have a unique role to play in our cultural evolution away from plastic pollution, as we have watched the havoc the surge of plastic has caused first hand”, notes Dr. Colette Wabnitz of the University of British Columbia.

“Sea turtle researchers from around the world have been submitting photos of interactions with plastic to the Image Library on Seaturtle.org. Given the amount of disposable plastic I see alongside the road everyday and the garbage my kids pick up whenever we go to the beach, the results are not surprising”, added Dr. Michael Coyne, founder and director of SeaTurtle.org.

The pdf of the report and a collection of images from around the world depicting in excruciating detail the impact of plastic on sea turtles can be found at:

http://www.seaturtle.org/plasticpollution/

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Bag It is a documentary film following the world wide use of plastic bags, plastic's impact on the environment and human health.
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5 Responses to Sea Turtles and Plastic…Read On!

  1. Pingback: Have You Read About the Turtle Who Pooped Plastic? | Fountain Hills Recycling

  2. Pingback: Sea Turtles and plastic bags | Helping Fur to Fins Globally

  3. Pingback: Plastic Bag Effect | Helping Fur to Fins Globally

  4. Pingback: Turtles Endangered by Ocean Trash | Kimberly Frieder

  5. Beach Dreams says:

    A friend of mine is creating a website about beaches, check it out: DreamCoasts.com

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