We now know how much plastic it takes to kill a sea turtle

Mark Kolbe/ Getty ImagesA Hawksbill sea turtle
  • Science now has proof that plastic debris is killing sea turtles.
  • Australian scientists analysed nearly 1,000 turtles found dead and washed up on beaches.
  • And found that once a turtle has 14 plastic items in its gut there was a 50% likelihood that it would cause death.

Scientists have answered the question: How much plastic does it take to kill a turtle?

A sea turtle who has ingested just one piece has more than a one in five chance of dying from the plastic, according to Australian research.

Analysis of nearly 1,000 turtles found dead and washed up on beaches around Australia shows that the more plastic a turtle consumes the greater the likelihood that it was killed by that plastic.

Previously, it was unclear as to whether the plastic in oceans is actually killing sea turtles, or whether they are simply ingesting it without significant harm.

“We knew that turtles were consuming a lot of plastic, but we didn’t know for certain whether that plastic actually caused the turtles’ deaths, or whether the turtles just happened to have plastic in them when they died,” says Dr Chris Wilcox, Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere.

“In other words, we wanted to know ‘How much plastic is too much plastic?’ for sea turtles.”

The scientists found that once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut there was a 50% likelihood that it would cause death. However, that’s not to say that a turtle won’t die if they consume less than 14 pieces of plastic.

Kathy Townsend / CSIROPlastic removed from large intestine of green sea turtle.

Sea turtles were among the first animals recorded to be ingesting plastic debris, a phenomenon that occurs in every region of the world and in all seven marine turtle species.

Globally, it is estimated that 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic. Determining the effect this is having on turtle mortality is a step forwards for understanding the impact of plastic pollution on sea turtle populations.

“Millions of tonnes of plastic debris is entering our world’s oceans on a yearly basis,” says Dr Wilcox.

“The model we’ve developed can be adapted to help us understand the impact of plastic ingestion not just on individuals, but whole populations of other endangered marine species as well.

“The better we understand the issue, the better equipped we are to address the problem, and work towards viable, scalable solutions.”

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