We Are Destroying Sea Turtles With All Our Plastic Waste

To sea turtles, a plastic bag looks like a tasty jellyfish. A lost fishing net might look like some harmless seaweed. But to turtles, plastic pollution is deadly—so deadly that it kills a thousand marine turtles each year, according to new research.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in England conducted a world-wide survey of oceans where sea turtles live and found that 91 percent of the turtles they found entangled in fishing gear were dead. The researchers also asked experts across the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Mediterranean if they had seen turtles killed by plastic. Of the 106 who responded, 84 percent said yes, according to the press release.

A dead sea turtle with a plastic bag. Public Domain

"Experts we surveyed found that entanglement in plastic and other pollution could pose a long-term impact on the survival of some turtle populations and is a greater threat to them than oil spills," said Brendan Godley, a professor of conservation science at Exeter, according to the press release. "We need to cut the level of plastic waste and pursue biodegradable alternatives if we are to tackle this grave threat to turtles' welfare."

The authors name a wide variety of plastic trash that ends up in oceans and kills turtles, from plastic twine to nylon fishing line to six pack rings from canned drinks, plastic packaging and discarded anchor lines. Animals entangled in plastic can choke to death, lose their limbs, injure themselves, become trapped or simply eat too much garbage to be able to consume regular meals. Dead animals full of trash illustrate how pieces of fishing gear and household debris can clog up an animal's stomach to the point that they starve to death.

And the death rates of turtles due to plastic may be even worse since the researchers say that their number of 1,000 deaths each year is highly conservative. The estimate is based on turtles found, but many dead sea turtles are never recovered. People who find dead sea turtles on the beach sometimes collect and eat them, the report said. Many turtles simply die at sea and are never seen again.

There are seven species of sea turtle, and they are all being impacted by plastic. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), sea turtles are all vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. The IUCN specifically notes that plastic pollution is a major threat to the survival of several species of sea turtles.

In the case of the leatherback sea turtle, for instance, the IUCN writes that their major threats are bycatch from fisheries, habitat destruction, people who kill them and their eggs for food, habitat destruction, climate change, pathogens and pollution.