Tough Sailing Ahead
It’s a beautiful summer day. You’re out on the water, ostensibly fishing but really just there to relax and enjoy the lull of the boat rock and the lazy conversation with your friends. The warmth of the sun on your skin, the birds circling and squawking, the wavelets lapping at the boat.
You gaze out to your line that sits as lifeless as it has all afternoon. Your eye catches something odd, you look closer and it still looks unusual. What looks like a ghost is laboring through the water, just below the surface. You look again. Of course it’s not a ghost, but rather something more frightening. It’s a sea turtle with a plastic bag streaming out behind it. Completely enveloped, the turtle fights against the bag to swim. You jump in, carefully lift the turtle on board. It’s big and exhausted. Who knows how long it has been wrestling against the bag, it’s flippers fighting for every stroke. You take out your knife and ever so carefully cut the bag free. The turtle seems to know that it’s going to be alright. It relaxes as you pull the plastic away, relieved in the knowledge that it can now move unfettered.
The plastic removed, you gently release the turtle back into the water and watch it disappear beneath the waves with powerful strokes of its flippers. Finally, free to swim again, you feel like a hero!
This is an imaginary story, but real life cases, similar to this one, are happening around the world. These responders are the real heroes and we’re so glad that they took action. They are the inspiration for this article.
Watch Amir Rahim rescue an Olive Ridley Turtle tangled in a plastic bag in the Arabian Sea:
Watch this unnamed couple, kayaking the Canary Islands, rescue another plastic bag victim, and send it off with a kiss for good luck:
The Problem for Turtles
Plastic presents a number of problems for turtles and other marine life. Most simply, plastic can cause intestinal blockage, leading to malnutrition, which in turn leads to poor health, reduced growth rates, or lower reproductive output. Blocked intestines can also kill these turtles, just as hard plastic can fatally pierce their internal wall.
Even when this doesn’t happen, buoyant plastic in a turtle’s digestive system can make it hard for them to swim and dive. The plastics accumulate toxins such as PCBs and heavy metals, which can leach out into the turtle’s tissues. Plastics can also present problems on the beach for nestlings, altering the sex ratio of hatchlings and physically obstructing their path out of the nest.
A study from the University of Queensland estimated that about 30% of the world’s turtles had ingested plastics in the 1980s. This had increased to an estimated 52% by 2015. The study also confirmed that six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles have been found to ingest debris, and all six are listed as globally vulnerable and endangered.
The Impact of Ocean Plastics on Sea Turtles has been Observed for Decades
An eye opening article in the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Plastics-at-Sea Catastrophe, details this issue. In the mid 1980’s, Dr. Archie Carr observed plastic debris in drift lines at the borders of ocean currents in the Atlantic Ocean. These drift lines are also where young turtles spend their early years, exposing them to high quantities of plastics.
At the same time, George Balazs was observing plastic entanglement and ingestion in 79 larger sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean. This included consumption of fishing line, net, plastic bags, beads and vinyl film. One dead turtle had swallowed a 10 by 12 foot sheet of heavy plastic.
During the 2000’s, Dr. Blair Witherington was studying post-hatchling turtles off the coast of Florida and found that 71 of 87 green turtles observed had ingested plastics. The study also found all of the 94 loggerheads had ingested plastics in their body. These turtles had been feeding in the open sea for less than two months, and yet the plastics made up more than a third of their diet.
The troubles continue today, more and more people are experiencing instances of turtles in distress or dead because of plastic. People outside the sphere of marine scientists are seeing these beautiful animals washed up on beaches while others are even freeing turtles from plastic entanglement. Recent examples include the green turtle found dead on a Hong Kong beach, its stomach filled with plastic, and the researchers who extracted a 4 inch long plastic straw from the nose of a turtle in Costa Rica. This one is pretty hard to watch but spoiler alert………it has a happy ending.
Plastic is deadly to turtles, and we need to take action to help them, NOW!.
What Can One Person Do About This?
The problem of plastic in the ocean and sea turtles seems so massive for an individual to impact. And, of course, it’s not really possible for one person alone to save the turtles. That’s the way it is for pretty much every big problem in the world. However, just like every other big problem in the world, one person can contribute to the building of a movement that does solve the problem. As Margaret Mead famously quoted, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
So what would a thoughtful, committed citizen do in the face of this problem? Well, it really boils down to reducing the amount of disposable plastic used, and treating any plastic that is used as the dangerous item that it is. That translates into a few simple, actionable steps:
Avoid the use of all plastic bags, especially shopping, grocery and produce bags. Plastic bags can be replaced by reusable cotton bags, they’re natural and biodegradable. Remember to BYOB, "bring your own bag".
Avoid plastic packaging. Buy in bulk at farmers markets and stores that minimize packaging, where possible. Carry goods in reusable bags and containers like glass jars.
Make sure any plastic is discarded in a careful way, preferably by recycling. Plastic bags, sheeting, and wraps can easily blow away during waste collection so place small pieces into larger bags and tie them into knots.
Take the Plastic Free July pledge. This can be as big or as little as you want. It can be a pledge to go without single use plastic for the whole month, or a smaller pledge of going without the Top 4 plastics (plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups, and straws) for as little as a day or week during July. Pick up any plastic that you come across. That’s not to say that you pick up every piece of plastic rubbish out there, but simply that you don’t walk by plastic that you see.
Organize a beach cleanup and take an hour to clean your favorite beach with family and friends. Don’t forget to share photographs of your haul on social media. Or if you just want to join an organized event, there are hundreds of great local organizations dedicated to beach cleanups all over the world. Ocean Conservancy operates globally so you can also check with them for cleanups in your area.
These simple acts can be done by ordinary people. They don’t need power or wealth; they are just everyday decisions from everyday people. And, together, they help our precious turtles.
The Boat Rises and Gently Falls
The wavelets lap against the boat, it gently rises and gently falls. A breeze wafts across from the ocean afar.
It is a breeze filled with warmth and with hope and with the promise of wisdom. Rich in the fragrance of a healthy ocean, a world that has taken action to repair what is wrong.
The boat rises and the boat falls as it breathes in the visions of a future we are creating. A future where we think carefully about the plastic we consume. Where we are mindful of where plastics end up. Where we turn down the plastic that is convenient but not necessary. Where we collectively take action to turn the tide on plastic.
A future where turtles swim free. Where turtles live a long life, nesting and hatching and swimming the deep blue sea before they return to their home and lay eggs. Again. A cycle of life that washes in, year after year.
The boat gently rises, gently falls.