Plastic garbage accounts for one-third of leatherback sea turtle mortalities
By Jeremy Hance
A new study in Marine Pollution Bullentin has confirmed that the world's largest sea turtle is succumbing in startling numbers to an environmental issue that receives little attention: plastic trash in the oceans.
To conduct his study Dr. Mike James from Dalhousie University and colleagues looked back over four decades of leatherback necropsies, i.e. post-mortems of animals.
"We wanted to see if plastics ingestion in leatherbacks was hype or reality," says James. It has long been theorized that leatherbacks often confuse plastic trash, especially plastic bags, with one of their favorite prey—jellyfish. In an unfortunate connection, both jellyfish and plastic trash are often found at where oceanic water masses meet.
"After reviewing the results of 371 necropsies since 1968, we discovered over one third of the turtles had ingested plastic," James says.
Plastic consumed by turtles leads to partial or complete obstruction of gastrointestinal tract. While the plastic takes its toll on the turtle's diet, energy, and reproduction, a complete blockage can lead to starvation. The more plastic a turtle ingests the more likely the trash will kill it, but even a little plastic can weaken a turtle significantly.
"The frustrating, yet hopeful aspect is that humans can easily begin addressing the solution, without major lifestyle changes," says Dr. James. "It's as simple as reducing packaging and moving towards alternative, biodegradable materials and recycling."
Leatherbacks are currently classified by the IUCN Redlist as critically endangered. Having inhabited the earth for over a hundred million years—surviving comets, global warming, and ice ages—it would be sadly ironic if the leatherback should go extinct due to something humans consider as innocuous as plastic bags.