STC Sea Turtle Blog

The Growing Problems Surrounding Marine Debris

Marine debris is a problem that mostly goes unseen due to ocean currents, but it’s a crisis that continues to grow globally, greatly jeopardizing the marine life ecosystem.


Photo by NOAA

The issue was recently brought into the global spotlight during the search for Malaysian Airline Flight 370. As the search for the missing flight continues, scientists are realizing just how harmful marine debris is globally. What rescue teams thought was debris from the missing plane ended up being a patch of marine litter that had collected in the ocean from currents. The debris poses a major threat to marine life and the ecosystem. To learn more about the situation click here.

It is estimated that over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris. Scientists believe the largest debris collection is the North Atlantic garbage patch located in the North Atlantic Ocean, which consists of trash from Europe, Mexico, the United States and Canada.

The marine debris includes drift wood, bottles, fishing nets, plastic bags, balloons and many other types of inorganic materials. More than 80 percent of all marine debris comes from land, which causes marine life to mistake the debris for potential food.

Turtle with back in throat - Divine Dolphin

This is a small sea turtle Divine Dolphin Tours found on its tour last week who had a woven plastic bag not only wrapped tightly around one of her flippers, but she had also swallowed part of the bag.

In a study conducted in Brevard and Volusia Counties in Florida, scientists who examined the gut contents from both living and nonliving stranded loggerhead turtles in those counties found that  100 percent of the 94 turtles examined had plastics in their gut contents. Another study conducted in the Gulf Stream Sargassum examined dead post-hatchlings which were left stranded following storms in the same area, and found that almost 100 percent of all the turtles examined had suffered from plastic ingestion.

State legislatures are currently taking steps to protect the ecosystem and marine life from potential marine debris. Hawaii recently passed a law banning plastic bags at checkout counters, and is the only state that has done so.  Unlike Hawaii, Florida law currently prohibits its state and local governments from enacting similar plastic bag bans, and a bill seeking to overturn this ban was introduced in the legislature this year. Although SB 830 “Carryout Bags” did not get very far in the Florida legislature this year, the voices of those who supported it were heard in Tallahassee and had an impact, as many legislators said their offices were “inundated” with calls, Tweets, and emails from supporters.  Thank you to all the sea turtle lovers that reached out to Florida legislators for support of SB830, and  please be sure to thank Sen. Dwight Bullard for sponsoring this bill! For more on this recent effort to change Florida’s law to allow local bans of plastic bags, check out this blog post from Surfrider Foundation Florida Chapter Network.

Balloon in turtle

Another source of marine debris is helium balloons. Although mostly practiced with good intentions, balloon releases create potential harm for marine life. For some species of sea turtles, which feed on jellyfish, turtles eat the balloons mistaking the plastic for jellyfish. The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota planned to release 60,000 balloons across Minnesota and North Dakota to commemorate its 60thanniversary. However, thanks to the vocalization of many supporters, the foundation is modifying its original plans regarding the balloon release. STC would like to thank all of those who politely shared their opinions with the foundation.

Helium balloons aren’t only dangerous to wildlife, they can be hazardous to humans, too. In 1986, organizers from the United Way of Cleveland attempted to break a world record by releasing 1.5 million balloons outside simultaneously. Unfortunately, when a big storm from the Great Lakes arrived, the balloons were pushed back toward the city. This resulted in the death of two boaters who were unable to be rescued because the Coast Guard could not fly its helicopter through the mass of balloons. Many of the balloons also ended up in the water, and rescuers could not properly search for their victims as the floating balloons looked similar to heads. The event ended up costing the city millions of dollars in law suits.

Fortunately, many states have banned large balloon releases. In Florida, the law states that individuals are allowed to release a maximum of 10 balloons into the air in a 24-hour period. Those who violate the balloon ordinance could be fined a maximum of $250.

There are many other ways to commemorate a special event other than releasing balloons. This article offers friendly alternatives highlighting other options to celebrate events without the use of balloons.

So, what can YOU do to help reduce marine debris? One of the easiest ways is to make the switch from plastic bags to reusable cloth bags. STC is offering a free limited edition reusable STC logo bag for Turtle Guardians who sign up during the month of April at the $10/month.

For other ideas, check out STC’s Actions You Can Take Page: