Can we save the sea turtles from our plastic?

Floating plastic waste poses a risk to sea turtles and other aquatic animals.

Anne Broderick/University of Exeter
Plastic debris pollutes a marine turtle nesting beach.

The real-life counterparts of the surfer-dude sea turtles in “Finding Nemo” are in trouble.

According to a new study, all seven species of sea turtle – from the familiar hawksbill, to the more obscure olive ridley – are under increased threat from the bags, bottles, and other plastic objects that litter the world’s oceans.

“Of the seven species, all are known to ingest or become entangled in marine debris,” the researchers write in a new study, published today in The ICES Journal of Marine Science. In addition to internal damage, eating plastic trash “can result in poor health, reduced growth rates and reproductive output, or death.”

Surprisingly few researchers have tackled this topic. "I was shocked at how little is known about the impacts of plastic on marine turtles," said lead author Sarah Nelms from the University of Exeter, in a press release.

"We know that discarded plastic poses a serious threat to wildlife, but this study shows that more research is urgently needed if we are to understand the scale of the problem," she added.

Sea turtles can become entangled in plastic debris while swimming and even on land, where trash can trap emerging nestlings fumbling toward the sea.

Conservationists are daunted by the sheer scale of the plastics problem. As the authors write, “Plastic debris is now ubiquitous in the marine environment, affecting [creatures] from microscopic zooplankton to large vertebrates.” The debris poses a special threat to endangered species like the turtles, they add.

The hawksbill sea turtle's population has plummeted 80 percent over the last decade; the IUCN Red List classifies them as critically endangered in the wild. 

Plastics threaten non-turtle species as well. Researchers at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere estimate that approximately 90 percent of birds have ingested plastics in the past 30 years, up from just five percent in 1960.

The plastics problem will require a global effort to solve, as plastic may start out in one corner of the world, but winds, currents, and other factors spread plastic garbage to even parts of the ocean that have little to no human contact.

Plastic microbeads, popular in personal care products, have fallen under intense scrutiny in recent years. The tiny plastic spheres wash down consumers’ drains and end up in larger bodies of water, where they are frequently mistaken for food by fish, seabirds, and other aquatic creatures.

Seven states have already banned their use, and four other states have pending legislation to follow suit. The Christian Science Monitor's Kelsey Warner reported that four European countries are pressing the EU to prohibit their use in cosmetics, while Australia will begin phasing out microbeads next year.

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