In a new paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers have quantified how deadly plastic ingestion is to a sea turtles and the results are heartbreaking.
The researchers from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the University of the Sunshine Coast examined two datasets that focused on featuring necropsies of 246 sea turtles and another group of 706 that came from national strandings databases.
The research results revealed that on average, a sea turtle that has eaten 14 pieces of visible plastic has a 50 percent of of dying as a result.
On top of that, the researchers also determined that 23% of the juveniles and 54%of post-hatchling stage turtles in our necropsies ingested plastic, in comparison with 15% of the sub-adults and 16% of adults. The researchers speculate that due to the younger animals feeding in the water column nearer the surface, and in some cases in coastal environments where debris is potentially bigger or in convergence zones where plastics accumulate, they are more likely to ingest compared to the adults who feed in lower water columns or further out at sea.
Sea Turtles are notorious for eating plastic as items such as plastic bags are very similar in look to one of their most common food items, the jellyfish. The plastic problem has been going on for centuries now but the most concerning part is that plastic consumption and plastic that ends up in the ocean is rising at a high rate even in todays culture, where we as a society are becoming more aware of the plastic impact.
While some of the plastic does look like the sea turtles food, researchers are still unsure whether the all the plastic is being ingested intentionally or accidentally.
This study marks the first time researchers were able to quantify the relationship between plastic ingestion and lethality has been made. Their results also confirm that eating a low number of plastic pieces may not kill many sea turtles, but it still can kill some through gut impacts or perforations. It could only take one single piece for a sea turtle to die.
Sea turtles are particularly vulnerable to this cause of death. They have a complicated gastro-intestinal tract that allows plastic to get trapped in its nooks and crannies more easily, and they are also unable to regurgitate, meaning that what goes into their throats stays in their throats.
Hopefully, this research will continue to help push governments and society away from single use plastic and instead become a world where we focus on protecting what we have rather than wanting more. All we can do is try.