- Hundreds of turtles die after getting entangled in discarded plastic trash
- Turtles mistakenly eat floating plastic which looks like prey (jellyfish)
- Waste then block their digestive tracts, leading to starvation and death
New Delhi: More than eight million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans every year. According to figures cited by United Nations, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050 unless people stop littering the seas with single-use plastic items such as plastic bottles and bags. The floating plastic debris (microplastics) has already started wreaking havoc on the marine ecosystem. Scientists have observed that marine life mistakenly consume plastic debris because the tiny bits of floating plastic (balloons, plastic bags) resemble their prey (jellyfish).
The plastic waste becomes dangerous for marine animals when they accidently ingest it while feeding or get entangled in it. If ingested, the plastic items can block their digestive tracts, leading to starvation and death. Hundreds of marine turtles die every year after feeding on plastic or getting tangled in discarded plastic trash and lost fishing gear (also called ‘ghost gear’ which passively drifts over large distances, sometimes randomly ‘fishing’ marine organisms which may also look harmless like seaweed to turtles), a new study published in the Endangered Species Research said.
The study, which covered most of the oceans where turtles live, observed that about 91 percent of the turtles that were entangled in plastic debris died after suffering serious wounds (loss of limbs) or choking. Notably, the others which survived were forced to drag the rubbish tangled to their bodies. There are seven species of sea turtle, and they are all being impacted by plastic, the study warns.
The survey found turtles are being tangled up in a wide variety of plastic trash such as 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 cable. Turtles were also discovered entangled in discarded plastic chairs, wooden crates, weather balloons and boat mooring line.
Notably, the hatchlings and young sea turtles are particularly susceptible to getting tangled up in lost or discarded fishing gear or floating debris. Juvenile turtles ride on ocean currents to zones where floating rubbish and debris is concentrated. They also can set up home near floating debris and remain there for years.
In addition to this, another threat of plastic pollution to marine turtles is that turtles eat plastic rubbish. Dead turtles full of trash illustrate how household debris can clog their stomach to the point that they starve to death.
Professor Godley, the lead author, said the mortality rate from becoming tangled up in human refuse was, in practice, likely to be far higher than 1,000 turtles a year estimated by the limited survey.
Most entanglements recorded were in lost or discarded fishing gear known as ‘ghost fishing’ rope, nets and lines. Since the 1950s the fishing industry has replaced natural fibres such as cotton, jute and hemp with synthetic plastic materials such as nylon, polyethylene and polypropylene which don’t biodegrade in water, the report stated.
The report concludes: “Entanglement with anthropogenic plastic materials, such as discarded fishing gear, as well as land based sources, is an under reported and under researched threat to marine turtles. The report also suggests that all stakeholders in this regard, including fisheries, scientific community and strandings networks (organisations which take care of the marine animals stranded on beach) should collaborate to provide mitigating actions by targeting the issue of ghost fishing and educating people on plastic waste.