A nature center in south Florida has shared a distressing photo of a tiny sea turtle that died due to consuming over 100 pieces of plastic. The photo of the turtle with all 104 pieces of plastic laid next to it serves as a reminder that “we all need to do our part to keep our oceans plastic-free.”
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, posted the photo on their Facebook page in early October during what they call “washback season”.
Washback season is when young sea turtles get washed ashore on the east coast of the US due to heavy winds and surf. During this time, the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, led by Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Coordinator Whitney Crowder and her team, regularly checks their local beaches for the younglings, posting #TurtleTuesday updates online.
“It's washback season at Gumbo Limbo and weak, tiny turtles are washing up along the coastline needing our help. Unfortunately, not every washback survives. 100% of our washbacks that didn't make it had plastic in their intestinal tracts.”
The tiny loggerhead turtle, which they said would have “fit in the palm of your hand” had washed up on the beach dead, apparently having consumed 104 pieces of plastic at sea.
Towards the end of the nesting season (March to October), young turtles ranging from a few weeks to a few months get as far as the Gulfstream and then get blown back to shore, Crowder told IFLScience. The strong currents of the Gulfstream are a magnet for floating trash, including microplastics, which have been found before, but not on this year's scale, Crowder noted.
"This year we have admitted ~120 washbacks and 40 have died," she said. "Of the turtles that we have necropsied, every one has been impacted by small pieces of plastic."
Plastic pollution is a growing problem for all the world’s oceans. Coastal areas that act as nesting grounds for animals like turtles are keeping rehabilitation centers particularly busy.
Florida serves as the nesting ground for five species of turtle: loggerheads, leatherbacks, greens, hawkbills, and the world’s rarest turtle, the Kemp’s ridley. All are endangered and protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Turtle hatchlings already have it tough, as anyone who watched Blue Planet Live this spring knows. Once they emerge from their nests onto the beach, they face a desperate dash to the sea, avoiding predators on the sand, only to face waiting predators in the sea. The brutal truth is survival rates for baby turtles are estimated between one in 1,000 and one in 10,000.
Now, these plucky youngsters have plastic pollution to contend with too.
But plastic pollution isn’t just limited to small food wrappers or plastic bags. Last year, two Kemp’s ridleys washed up dead on beaches in Florida and Alabama, one entangled in a beach chair and one trapped in a bar stool.
Following the outpouring of sadness for the plight of the tiny turtle, the center also posted about the hatchlings they have managed to save, detailing the process of rehabilitation they go through, from floating hammocks to let them rest to providing fluids and checking their health while waiting for plastic matter to pass through them.
"I think this is a wake-up call from the sea turtles telling us that we must transform the role that plastic plays in our society," Crowder told IFLScience. "We are amazed by the outpouring of support we have received for this story and are encouraged by how many people want to help!"
The tide appears to be turning for single-use plastics, and though governments, corporations, and individuals are doing their bit to limit the amount of plastics that end up in our seas, there is still work to be done.
"Plastic pollution is the sad world we live in now. We need to do better," the center wrote on their Facebook page.
Here's hoping this little guy fairs better than the others.