23 May 2018 Story Ecosystems

Fatal attraction: Turtles and plastic

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A turtle-friendly conservation project in the Galapagos islands is targeting plastic debris. 

The Galapagos green turtle’s favourite food is jellyfish, so wherever jellyfish are most abundant, turtles are bound to be close by. Unfortunately, plastic bags look like jellyfish when floating in the ocean, and if a turtle ingests a plastic bag, it forms a fatal blockage in the gut, usually resulting in death.

This warning comes from the Galapagos Conservation Trust based in the United Kingdom and supporting turtle conservation projects since 1995.

Galapagos green turtles are endangered. They differ from other marine turtles by their serrated lower jaw and a single pair of scales covering their eyes. They can reach a length of 84cm and are known to weigh up to 136kg. They are fast swimmers, travelling at speeds up to 35mph over long distances thanks to their powerful flippers. They are even able to sleep underwater, but only for a few hours at a time.

The Trust is launching a new multi-year program to reduce plastic use in the Archipelago, where a ban on single-use plastic straws, bottles and bags will enter into force on 21 August 2018. The ban was promoted by the Governing Council of the Special Regime of the Galápagos.

Plastic debris ingested by turtles can cause intestinal blockage resulting in malnutrition, reduced growth rates and even death. Perhaps most distressingly, turtles can starve to death because they feel full after swallowing plastic debris.

A 2015 study, led by Qamar Schuyler of the University of Queensland and published in Global Change Biology, estimated that 52 percent of sea turtles worldwide have eaten plastic debris.
 

This 10-minute video, which contains graphic content and strong language, shows researchers extracting a plastic straw from a turtle’s nostril.

A recent global study by the University of Exeter indicates that many turtles die every year from ingesting plastic debris, or get injured, or die, after entanglement in plastic and other debris.

The survey, covering 43 countries, found turtles are being tangled up in lost fishing nets, plastic twine and nylon fishing line, as well as six pack rings from canned drinks, plastic packaging straps, plastic balloon string, kite string, plastic packaging and discarded anchor line and seismic cables.

Professor Brendan Godley, the lead author of the study, warned that as plastic pollution increases more and more turtles are likely to become entangled.

“Plastic rubbish in the oceans, including lost or discarded fishing gear which is not biodegradable, is a major threat to marine turtles,” says Godley.

“We found, based on beach strandings, that more than 1,000 turtles are dying a year, after becoming tangled up, but this is almost certainly a gross underestimate. Young turtles and hatchings are particularly vulnerable to entanglement.”

 

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In recent years, global turtle population numbers have been falling. The fishing industry is a serious threat; although turtles are strong swimmers they often become entangled in fishing gear. Weighed down by heavy nets, they are unable to surface and subsequently drown. Other threats include invasive species and pollution.

Every minute we dump the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean. If we carry on as usual, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. By 2050, this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

UN Environment’s Clean Seas Campaign was launched in February 2017. It aims to increase global awareness of the need to reduce marine litter. The need for measures differs in different parts of the world. Proper waste management infrastructure is lacking in some areas, while in others the challenge involves the general public’s awareness of the impact litter has on the environment.

World Turtle Day on 23 May, sponsored yearly since 2000 by American Tortoise Rescue, aims to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises, and encourage human action to help them survive and thrive.

World Sea Turtle Day on 16 June, is sponsored by the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy, which was founded in 1959 by Archie Carr.

World Environment Day on 5 June 2018 is hosted by India and focuses on the theme of plastic waste. This aligns with, and further develops, the December 2017 UN Environment Assembly’s “Beat Pollution” watchword.

For further information: [email protected]

Sea turtles are one of the flagship species of the UN's Wild for Life campaign

#BeatPlasticPollution is the theme of World Environment Day 2018.