Information About Sea Turtles: Threats from Marine Debris

The Problem: Over 1 million marine animals (including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles, and birds) are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean (UNESCO Facts & Figures on Marine Pollution). Currently, it is estimated that there are 100 million tons of plastic in oceans around the world. It is expected that another 60 billion pounds will be produced this year alone. In some areas, the buildup of plastics is estimated to span 5 million square miles. To put it into perspective, that is the equivalent of the area of the U.S. plus India. How does that much plastic get there? Eighty percent of the plastic debris comes from land. It washes out to sea from our beaches, streets and highways. It flows out through storm drains into streams and rivers. It flies away from landfills and into the stomachs of sea turtles everywhere. Most of the debris is recognizable. Plastic bags, bottles, balloons, degraded buoys, packaging materials and food wrappers all contribute to the debris. While large plastics are a substantial pollutant, over time these plastics will break down into smaller, more toxic pieces. Not only are these small plastics more easily ingested, but they also act as hosts for invasive species, carrying them to other regions of the ocean exponentially increasing the damages caused by plastics. In addition, certain plastic contains toxic additives that are distributed into the water and enter into the food chain.

Many turtles, that have been killed by consuming debris, had plastic bags or fishing line in their stomachs, some as small as half of a fingernail. Sea turtles are especially susceptible to the effects of consuming marine debris due to their bodies’ own structure. They have downward facing spines in their throats which prevent the possibility of regurgitation. The plastics get trapped in their stomach, which prevents them from properly swallowing food. Also, many sea turtle rehabilitation facilities commonly deal with “bubble butts,” turtles that float as a result of trapped gas caused by harmful decomposition of marine debris inside a turtle’s body. The gases cause the turtle to float, which leads to starvation or makes them an easy target for predators.

Species Affected: All species of sea turtles, adult green turtles to a lesser degree, are affected by marine debris. Juvenile green turtles are heavily affected by marine debris.

The Solution: Education is important to solving marine pollution. The public can get involved in this issue by:

  • Reduce, Reuse and Recycle plastics;
  • Use reusable cloth bags instead of plastic bags when shopping;
  • Support local, regional and nationwide bans on plastic grocery bags;
  • Don’t litter. Instead, volunteer at local beach clean-up events;
  • Make sure to properly secure your garbage to prevent any fly-away plastics;
  • Don’t release balloons into the air. They travel far and end up in our oceans being consumed by sea turtles that mistake them for food.

Case Study: Cities and countries all over the world are now considering or implementing bans on plastic bags. Canada, Australia, the U.S. and Europe, for example are all considering bans or other measures to reduce consumption. In Ireland, plastic bags have been taxed since 2002, estimating a reduction in plastic bag use by almost 90 percent. And in January 2008, China’s State Council put a nationwide ban on plastic bags. The cabinet has demanded all stores go plastic bag-free after June 1. Not only will this reduction have a positive impact on the environment, but it is estimated that it will save China’s 37 million barrels of oil.*

*Drilling for oil also causes sea turtles harm in the form of pollution from spills.

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