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Ocean Plastic Pollution: Groundhog Day, But This Time with Sea Turtles

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I got a kick out of Groundhog Day, the comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell that was released in 1993. With Murray waking each day to relive Groundhog Day alongside Punxsutawney Phil and his co-anchor, the movie was lighthearted and fun. But the science of ocean plastic pollution is starting to feel a lot like Groundhog Day. And the storyline is becoming much more troubling with each new publication.

This week a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology calculates that over half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic; this follows on the heels of a publication last month by some of the same scientists that predicted that nearly all of the world’s seabirds would be contaminated with plastics by 2050 unless action is taken soon. With each new publication, the case for a global strategy to stem the tide of plastics into the world’s oceans becomes ever more vital.

Qamar Schuyler is lead author on this study alongside Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty (members of an independent scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis that Ocean Conservancy convened in 2011) and four other ocean experts. The team applied the same analytical approach used in Dr. Wilcox’s seabird analysis, with disturbingly similar results. By integrating global maps of plastic in the ocean and sea turtle distribution, they showed that these endangered animals are most at risk of plastic ingestion in hotspots along the coastlines of southern China and Southeast Asia, and the east coasts of Australia, the United States and southern Africa. Olive Ridleys are the species at greatest risk because of its broad diet, oceanic life style, and its tendency to selectively ingest plastics. Kemp’s Ridleys are the species least at risk because of its tendency to eat animals that live on the bottom of the ocean, rather than forage at the ocean surface.

Due to limited data, the authors couldn’t determine the population and species level impacts of their findings; but given that as little as 0.5 gm of ingested plastic can kill a juvenile turtle, there is clearly cause for concern. Just as for seabirds, contamination rates for sea turtles have increased over time and Schuyler estimates that 52% of the world’s remaining sea turtles have plastics in their gut. That number is 62% for the world’s seabirds. Groundhog Day indeed.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are responding decisively to this onslaught of new science. We are now leading an effort to stem the tide of plastics from the regions that are the greatest source of plastics to the ocean, currently rapidly industrializing countries in Asia. Schuyler’s study confirms that this region is a critical beachhead in our campaign against ocean plastic pollution. Our team is also actively planning a November 2015 meeting of our Trash Free Seas Alliance ® to confront the consequences of this emerging science head-on and to advance plans to solve this problem at scale. The Alliance brings together conservationists, industry leaders, and scientists with a common purpose of keeping marine debris out of our ocean and waterways. Long the responsibility of individual consumers and cash-starved governments, plastics in the ocean is increasingly a problem that requires private sector leadership and resources to help solve, an issue that is at the center of our work with the Alliance.

The good news is Groundhog Day came to an end and Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell lived happily ever after. In the ocean, sea turtles and seabirds can have a happy ending too, but only if we collectively commit to stemming the tide of plastics that is increasingly contaminating the ocean’s wildlife.

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