Sea Turtles Offer Dire Warning of Oceans’ Crisis
Wallace Nichols, a marine biologist who has been studying sea turtles and plastic pollution in the oceans for nearly 25 years, is worried.
“It used to be that when we found a rare piece of plastic on a nesting beach or tangled around a turtle, we’d pick it up or remove it and all would be right in the world again,” he told Truthout. “But the problem steadily and steeply worsened to the point that now we can spend all day endeavoring to clean up the plastic in and on the same beaches, come back the next day and start all over again. Nearly all turtle necropsies produce internal plastics.”
Nichols, who is also a senior fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy and author of Blue Mind, says he used to try to estimate how many sea turtles were impacted by plastic pollution, but now the answer to him is simple: “All of them, 100 percent,” he said. “But that number should be ‘none of them,’ zero percent.”
Nichols believes sea turtles have become the poster species for what he calls the “runaway carbon economy.”
“We’re talking about animals that spend much of their lives in the wildest, most distant and uninhabited parts of the ocean, yet they still ingest and swim through plastic out there,” he said. “Then nesting beaches and even the sex ratios of baby sea turtles are impacted by climate change, and their feeding and nursery areas are being transformed. That’s a big wake-up call.”
But that is just the tip of the iceberg of other issues besetting Earth’s oceans, and all of them are cause for Nichols’s wake-up call.
Nichols believes, as he put it, “Our mismanagement of the carbon economy during the past century has put the ‘blue economy’ — one based on water and far more important to life on Earth — at risk.”
By “blue economy,” he is referencing a widely used term for the economic contribution of the oceans and coasts to the overall global economy, along with the imperative that humans address the sustainability of the oceans.
Nichols said that, taken together, human-caused climate disruption, plastic pollution, oil and fuel spills and leaks, and industrial agriculture have significantly altered life on our planet.
“Our lakes, rivers and oceans are downstream of all of these impacts,” he said. “The results are ocean warming and acidification, sea level rise, dead zones, beach closures, a biodiversity crisis, fisheries collapses, and of course, massive amounts of plastic pollution in places it should never be — such as the guts of sea turtles, birds and whales and mixed into beach sand, sea salt and food.”
“Literally Loaded From Throat to Anus With Plastic”
Jeffrey Seminoff is the leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
He agrees with Nichols that marine debris like plastics are a huge problem, but added that microplastics are equally bad, given that they suppress immune systems of the marine life that ingests them, as well as causing physiological distress to wildlife. Seminoff also points to ocean acidification as another of his biggest concerns, along with, of course, anthropogenic climate disruption’s impact on the oceans.
However, to underscore his point on plastics, as well as Nichols’s concerns, Seminoff told Truthout that the day before we spoke, he had conducted a sea turtle necropsy.
“I’m training the Dutch deployment team that, this August, is going to work cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Seminoff said. “One of the green sea turtles we just necropsied was literally loaded from throat to anus with plastic. I’ve never seen so much plastic in an animal before.”
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, located between Hawaii and California. Recent estimates show that in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone (and there are at least four other massive oceanic garbage patches around the world), there are more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing an estimated 88,000 tons. That is the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets and includes a plastic count that is equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every single human on Earth.
According to Seminoff, turtles are a close second to seabirds as the marine life most affected by plastic pollution, because any plastic they encounter they perceive as prey and eat it. Because of this, he said, “The ingestion component is particularly detrimental.”
Seminoff explained that while sea turtles are incredibly resilient animals, this also means that when we see impacts on them from all of these issues, “Once they start to suffer, as resilient as they are, it is a clear indicator of poor health of our ocean ecosystems.”
“Why do we want them to survive?” he asked. “Because if they don’t, other things simply won’t.”
When he lectures about sea turtles or marine mammals, he frames things in the ecological roles of these animals.
“It’s profound, in that they are keeping ecosystems in balance, and are playing [the role of] keystone species,” Seminoff said. “If you don’t have sea turtles in these coastal ecosystems, the ecosystems suffer, because [sea turtles] are incredibly important for the entire system to function in a healthy manner.”
Meanwhile, Jason Scorse, chair of the International Environmental Policy Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he is also the director of the Center for the Blue Economy, believes the two greatest threats to ocean ecosystems are acidification and commercial fishing.
“Acidification is undermining the entire ecological system, because if the pH gets low enough and these shelled and calcified creatures start dying off in large numbers, that sets in motion a huge cascade effect across the entire ocean system,” Scorse told Truthout. “This is the greatest concern of the scientists I know.”