By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News
The Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium admitted a small green sea turtle they called Gill on April 4. This turtle was weak and debilitated. Several weeks later Gill passed a four-inch piece of latex balloon out of his digestive tract. Eighteen turtles admitted to this facility have been known to have ingested marine debris. Most people know that plastic bags look very much like jellyfish, a prey item of sea turtles.
After passing the plastic and getting excellent rehabilitative and medical care, Gill was released on Kiawah Island on Aug. 18. This is just one example of many recent incidents where turtles and other sea creatures have been badly affected or even killed by plastics and other debris in the ocean. It is thought that 80% of marine debris is made up of plastic which never degrades and only breaks down into smaller pieces. It is thought that the average seabird has thirty pieces of plastic in its stomach and that there are over 3,500 parts of plastic per square kilometer. For every pound of algae and plankton found in the Gulf Stream current, there are six pounds of plastic.
In 2009 a mother pygmy sperm whale was dying and washed up near Station 13 on Sullivan’s Island along with her calf. After the mother died, a necropsy showed that she had swallowed a large black plastic bag that blocked her GI tract and caused her death. It also caused the death of her calf who could not survive without her. In 2011 the loggerhead sea turtle who was called Jammer because he washed up near death near the Windjammer on the Isle of Palms was also found to have a gastrointestinal blockage.
A particularly sad example of plastics harming sea life was just this past January when I responded to a call about a dead bottle nosed dolphin at 21st Ave. on the Isle of Palms. This young male dolphin had plastic monofilament line wrapped so tightly around its lower jaw that the tissue had died, possibly causing him to be unable to feed.
Plastics in the ocean have been found by a study in Florida in 78.8% of the 350 hatchling sea turtles studied as they make their first migration across the Atlantic Ocean. The problem is that polyethylene household plastics don’t dissolve. They just keep breaking down into smaller and smaller confetti sized pieces that appear to be food to these turtles who are just learning to forage and feed.
We are very much indebted to the many Turtle Team members on our Island who pick up multiple pounds of litter including plastics on the beach during their patrol each summer. And we are grateful to the Isle of Palms for leading the way in banning single use plastic bags on the island. But we all need to try to reduce the use of plastic straws and Styrofoam (polystyrene) containers that do not decompose. Let’s keep our beaches and waterways clean of debris, not only for turtles but also for all other wildlife and people too. Please pick up after your dog, fill in holes that are dug on the beach that can be a hazard to people as well, and remove tents and other beach equipment at the end of the day.