Sea turtles swallow a gut's full of junk

This collection of plastic was in the belly of a sea turtle found off the coast of Argentina. Photo / Victoria Gonzalez Carman
This collection of plastic was in the belly of a sea turtle found off the coast of Argentina. Photo / Victoria Gonzalez Carman

This collection of hundreds of coloured, jagged shards could be a work of abstract art. But the objects are the contents of the stomach of a sea turtle found off the coast of Argentina after losing its battle with plastic pollution.

The bellyful of debris environmentalists found is symptomatic of the increasing threat to sea turtles from a human addiction to plastic.

Sea turtles often mistake plastic for jellyfish or other food.

Ingesting non-biodegradable ocean pollution can cause a digestive blockage and internal lacerations.

The result can be debilitation and death.

Humans produce 260 million tonnes of plastic a year.

When those products are pulled into the sea's currents, the plastics do not biodegrade but are broken into smaller pieces which are consumed by marine life at the bottom of the food chain.

An examination of gastrointestinal obstruction in a green turtle found off Florida discovered that, over a month, the animal's faeces contained 74 foreign objects, including "four types of latex balloons, different types of hard plastic, a piece of carpet-like material and two 2-4mm tar balls".

The biggest rubbish "swill" is the North Pacific Gyre, known as the "great garbage patch", which is the size of Texas and contains about 3.5 million items of detritus, ranging from toys to toothbrushes.

"The oceans have become one giant refuse bin for all manner of plastics," said biologists Colette Wabnitz, from the University of British Columbia, and Wallace Nichols, of the California Academy of Sciences.

"All sea turtle species are particularly prone and may be seriously harmed."

In Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency, they write: "Continued research on the impacts of plastic on the ocean environment and human health is likely to conclude the problem is worse than currently understood.

"The symptom of this growing crisis can be seen inside and on sea turtles as well as their oceanic and terrestrial habitats.

"Bold initiatives that directly confront the source of plastic pollution, redesign packaging and rethink the very idea of 'throwaway culture' are urgently required."

Almost all marine species, from plankton to whales, have ingested plastic. But, even in small quantities, plastic can kill sea turtles by obstructing the oesophagus or perforating the bowel, the biologists said.

Fifty of 92 turtles found dead, stranded on the shorelines of Rio Grande do Sul state in Brazil, had ingested a "considerable amount of man-made debris".

The biologists are asking people to help reduce the threat from plastics by bringing reusable bags and food containers and avoiding plastic-bottled drinks during visits to coastal areas.


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