For sea turtles, a diet worse than junk food

A Pacific leatherback turtle in Monterey Bay breaks the surface about every two hours, taking a deep breath of air before going back under to hunt for jellyfish. Leatherbacks use their powerful flippers to propel themselves forward and grab a gelatinous mouthful.

Leatherback hatchlings_Jeroen Looye_flickrCC
Mabibi – LEATHERBACK TURTLE” by Jeroen Looyé is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Only it might not be a jellyfish.

It might be a plastic bag, perhaps one of the 13 billion disposable grocery bags that Californians use each year. Scientists are finding single-use bags, cosmetic microbeads and other types of plastic litter throughout the ocean, even in the deepest submarine canyons. Globally, an estimated 8 million metric tons reach the ocean every year.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, persisting in the environment. That makes plastic pollution a major threat to marine ecosystems—and sea turtles are among the most vulnerable ocean animals.

“The enormity of the problem, the scale of the pollution and the vast impact have only really been appreciated in the last decade,” says Kyle Van Houtan, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s director of science. “Sea turtles are good indicators of the challenges the ocean faces right now.”

Plastic pollution starts early

To assess the risks that threatened sea turtles face, scientists need to know where they spend their vulnerable early years. In a paper published in the journal Ecology and Evolution in March, Kyle focused on the world’s smallest sea turtle population, the Hawaiian hawksbill.

The Endangered Species Act has protected Hawaii’s green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles since 1978. Green turtles have rebounded, but hawksbill numbers are still dangerously low; only about 100 breeding adults remain. Why did conservation efforts succeed for one species, but not the other?

Kyle had a hunch the answer lies in what he calls hawksbill turtles’ “lost years.”

Researchers think most sea turtle species—green and loggerhead, for example—spend the bulk of their early years in the open ocean before returning to the coast as large juveniles. But Kyle discovered that juvenile hawksbills spend their early years in shallow reefs and coastal estuaries, which are hotspots for plastic pollution.

Kyle Van Houtan’s research found more plastic than food, by mass, in the guts of baby hawksbill turtles.

That may explain why every juvenile hawksbill Kyle and his colleagues examined was either entangled in, or had eaten, plastic.

“Those early years are very important to turtles’ survival,” Kyle says. “If we’re compromising that with plastic pollution, we’re adding insult to injury.”

In clean water, a healthy young hawksbill turtle would eat mostly gelatinous zooplankton, like tiny jellies, tunicates and salps. But Kyle’s research shows young Hawaiian hawksbills are eating more plastic, by mass, than anything else.

Can it be compared to a human kid eating nothing but mac ‘n’ cheese and cake throughout childhood?

“This is worse,” Kyle says. “Like eating Legos.”

A problem throughout the global ocean

Hawaiian waters aren’t the only garbage-strewn sea turtle habitat. A study published last fall in Global Change Biology estimates half of the world’s sea turtles will ingest plastic at some point in their lives.

Although turtles mistake it for food, plastic ocean debris is more like poison. It acts as a magnet for chemical pollutants, such as pesticides and PCBs, that have been discharged into the ocean. When a baby turtle eats plastic, it consumes those toxins, too. A fish that eats the turtle—and perhaps 10 more like it—gets an even heavier dose, and the toxins continue to build up in the food web.

Plastic pollution_Bo Eide_FlickrCC
“Marine litter. Plastic bottles on a beach” by Bo Eide is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Another serious health concern is what a turtle doesn’t get when it eats plastic. Animals expend energy trying to digest plastic without getting any calories in return. That can lead to developmental delays.

Turtles young and old can also become entangled in plastic trash, like six-pack rings and abandoned fishing nets. Rescuers have retrieved plastic forks and straws from the noses of sea turtles.

Other marine animals are affected, too. Plastic pollution was found in the guts of 97.5 percent of Laysan albatross chicks, according to one study. Recently, 13 sperm whales washed up dead on the German coast of the North Sea; among the contents of their stomachs were fishing nets, pieces of a plastic bucket and the plastic cover of a car engine.

We all play a part

The global scale of the problem means everyone plays a role, says Qamar Schuyler of the University of Queensland, lead author of the study in Global Change Biology. Coastal communities around the globe are grappling with the contradictions of plastic—weighing its convenience against its rising toll on the marine environment.

“Everybody goes to the store and makes a decision about whether they buy something that’s wrapped in plastic,” Qamar says.

In November, California voters will have the chance make a decision that’s bigger than what to cook for dinner. They’ll be asked to decide a referendum that, if approved, would ban single-use plastic bags statewide. Monterey Bay Aquarium urges you to vote YES on Proposition 67 for a plastic-free ocean.

Lisa Marie Potter

Featured photo: Hawksbill sea turtle. Photo by USFWS.


6 thoughts on “For sea turtles, a diet worse than junk food”

  1. We do our best to make our pond a sanctuary for turtles, frogs, fish and birds. No motor boats, no fishing, no pestacides and no greasy, sunscreened human bodies.

    But, human behavior, similar to what is described in this excellent article on sea turtles, still threatens wildlife, even here in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. The other day, we found a Happy Birthday balloon in our pond. We hope we got it out before any unsuspecting critter tried to eat it. Then, I heard that a local town celebrated Memorial Day by releasing balloons with the names of service members killed in action. Can’t we honor our heroes without killing something else? Plastic isn’t just litter that messes up the view; it’s a deadly menace to wildlife. #nature #conservation #turtles #plastic

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said! Bottled water is another repeat offender … for anyone over the age of 20, we know there was life before bottled water. There are a hundred reasons to ban them, not the least of which is its effect on wildlife. It is such a simple thing and it actually saves money … it costs 1000x the cost of tap water. Further, it takes 3 bottles of water just to MAKE the bottle, depletes water unevenly from communities (which is actually changing weather patterns), and contaminates the communities that host the bottling facilities. Banning bottled water is a win-win-win-win-win … there is nothing to lose!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Natalie! We here in Norway are aware the plastic-treath. The Norwegian coast is very long, and we find plastic-bags and garbage from all over the world. Last year a sick whale was found on the coast near Stavanger. It died – and afterwards it was discovered that its belly was stuffed with plastic- products. The animal was very thin – and had probably been without normal food for weeks.

    We in my family do not use plastic-bags any more. We bring bags when we og to the stores.

    Trond Gustavsen- Norway.


  4. “Like eating legos”
    That will forever stick with me. Sea turtles are my favorite animals and I will do all I can to protect them! Thank you for this information about proposition 67 as well!


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