JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Several dozen sea turtle hatchlings found along northeast Florida beaches are eating plastic pollution and turning up dead.
Bits of plastic saturating the ocean have made it into the diets of 92% of the turtles surveyed between Nassau and Flagler counties.
The pollution is deadly especially deadly for post-hatchlings who spend their formative months floating along seaweed mats just offshore.
Nearly a dozen scientists, including some at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Whitney Marine laboratory, discovered potentially harmful quantities of plastic in turtles that don’t pass easily through their digestive system.
Some turtles had hundreds of digested fragments with pieces nearly a half-inch large.
The discovery came after 396 emaciated post-hatchlings were washed ashore and were brought to the UF Whitney Lab’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital during the 2016 and 2017 nesting seasons.
Most were treated and released but 103 died shortly after being admitted to the hospital or were dead on arrival.
Necropsies performed on 42 post-hatchlings revealed on average 50 pieces of plastics per turtle. One turtle ate 287 pieces of plastic.
Many fragments were about the width of two quarters with some pieces reaching nearly a half-inch.
Hard plastic fragments recovered from the 2016 post-hatchlings were significantly larger than those recovered from the 2017 post-hatchlings despite more plastic pieces being ingested in 2017.
In comparison to another survey in south Florida, the north Florida average plastic-to-body mass ratio is 162% higher than those from South Florida.
The presence of plastic in the GI tract reduces the ability of the post-hatchling to ingest and efficiently digest natural food items during a critical part of the young turtle’s life when they need to grow fast to avoid predation.
The plastic junk food is believed to stunt turtle productivity and growth by filling their guts with materials that lack nutrients.
The problem is so critical it accounts for up to 1.23% of post-hatchling body weight which sets up the risk for plastic-related health issues. This shows no signs of abating with the increasing rate of pollution.
While weathering breaks the physical shapes of plastics down, the tiny particles remain in the ocean for centuries as more plastic pollution spills into the seas at unprecedented scales.
Plastics are the most common type of marine debris globally reaching a staggering 299 million tons as of 2013.
Upcoming research will see how the long-term health and survival impacts of plastic pollution along with its associated chemical additives impact the reptile population.