Kemp’s ridleys are the world’s smallest sea turtles and also the most endangered.
In 2010, one such turtle swimming off of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico struggled with a plastic bag, filled with sand, wrapped around its neck. Researchers believe the bag suffocated the turtle, or acted as an anchor, pulling it underwater where it drowned.
Untold hundreds of animals are killed or hurt by plastic waste like this in American waters every year, according to a new report estimating part of the toll from the environmental advocacy organization Oceana. The group spent about 6 months gathering reports from 13 organizations across the country. In that short period, it compiled evidence of roughly 1,800 sea turtles and marine mammals affected by plastics, including the Kemp’s ridley, dating to 2009.
“It’s not a remote problem. The items we found inside these animals are common everyday items that we use,” said Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana.
The total is a certain undercount of the harm caused by plastic debris. No entity maintains a comprehensive, long-range public accounting across the nation and across species. Oceana’s report does not tally up all the shorebirds wrapped in nets and fishing line, for instance, and the authors acknowledge it “is a partial snapshot of a staggering problem.”
The report nonetheless lists numerous examples of litter, like children’s toys and shipping bands, disfiguring or debilitating marine life, pressing into dolphins’ skin and filling turtles’ stomachs. It mentions 700 Florida manatees, dozens of which Oceana said could have died in part because of plastics, according to the group’s review of data from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Like manatees, nearly 90 percent of the animals included are threatened or endangered. A manatee died with plastic bags wadded into balls in its stomach, one approximately the size of a cantaloupe, according to state research cited by Oceana.
Florida was not alone in the damage: Scientists wrote of a sandwich bag encircling the neck of a seal in New York and a whale in Virginia with its stomach cut by a DVD case. A dolphin in California swallowed a food wrapper that got stuck in its esophagus.
The most common plastic pollutants include fishing line, food containers, bags and balloons. Many of the animals swallowed garbage, though in a number of cases they were entangled in strips and sheets of plastic, like a sea turtle with a plastic ring over its body.
Plastic production has increased over time, Warner said, and is expected to continue to expand. In many cases, she said, Oceana reviewers were not given animals’ exact causes of death, but they nonetheless identified dozens of instances in which plastic was at least a contributor.
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For biologists in Florida, the report is unsurprising.
“I’ve seen lots of water bottles, plastic bags. I’ve seen a mattress ... lots of coolers,” said Shannon Gowans, a biology professor at Eckerd College, who is frequently on the water. She has studied dolphins and whales for 25 years and said researchers have long known the dangers of plastic. A floating bag might look like a squid, she said, or a jellyfish. Once eaten, it does not break down.
“When you fill an animal’s stomach they don’t feel hungry, and they don’t go eat,” Gowans said. “They think they’re full even though they’re starving to death.”
Scientists around Tampa Bay further worry about plastic pollution that is harder to see. Gowans is part of a project tracking microplastics, generally smaller than a pinky nail. Researchers are trying to determine just what harm they cause, but Gowans said chemicals from the materials are absorbed into animals’ bloodstreams. Microplastics have turned up in sediment, at the water’s surface and in manatees, she said. A recent study found 4 billion particles in the bay.
“There’s no real clear pattern to where we’re finding it,” Gowans said. “It’s just everywhere.”
To reduce the pollution, Oceana recommends making less plastic. The report urges companies to use sustainable materials and suggests cities should implement policies to limit single-use plastics. Leaders in St. Petersburg and Tampa have already started on such an approach, targeting items like foam takeout containers and plastic straws.
On the new St. Pete Pier, the local environmental organization Tampa Bay Watch houses a sculpture of a wave in its education center, built using 1,500 plastic water bottles to teach visitors about the many plastics Americans use every day.
“A lot of folks who live inland truly don’t recognize that their one plastic bag, their one plastic water bottle can move out into our waterways,” said Melanie Grillone, who manages the nonprofit’s marine debris program. Stormwater runoff and wind blow garbage into streams and out to the bay or gulf.
Tampa Bay Watch volunteers who work on clean-ups find coils of fishing line and also heaps of mulch or lawn trimmings, which trap small bits of litter. Last year, Grillone said, volunteers at coastal events around the region picked up about 5,200 pounds of debris.
Currents push plastic waste into hot spots around Tampa Bay, she said, including near MacDill in South Tampa. Tampa Bay Watch has collected more than 1,500 pounds of garbage since March 2018 from a Watergoat — like a floating barrier — at Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg. When helpers lay out and sort the pieces on a tarp, Grillone said, birds fly down to peck at the plastic, curious or thinking it is food.
Going plastic-free initially can be expensive, Grillone said, and it is not an easy solution for everyone. But manufacturers, she said, may only start to cut back on production when more buyers demand alternatives.
“They’re going to feel they’re held accountable,” Grillone said. “It has to start there.”