Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous manmade compounds on earth. Since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s to 2015, humans have created more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics. Alarmingly, more than half of that plastic was produced in the last 13 years. Unless something drastic is done, that trend is set to increase further in the future. It’s estimated that at least 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year with detrimental impacts on species, habitat and people.
Marine turtles are long-lived, keystone species that utilise a wide range of marine habitats including beaches; near shore habitats of sea grass, corals and mangroves; the pelagic zone; and open ocean. Given the scale of the plastics problem and the marine turtle’s broad habitat use, it’s not surprising that turtles and plastics regularly come into contact. And that meeting is not a good one.
There has been considerable coverage of the problems associated with turtles swallowing plastics, but the problems start even before turtles are in the water. Beaches strewn with plastics make it difficult for nesting females to reach suitable nesting sites. Likewise, plastic debris can be a major obstacle for newly emerged hatchlings who are desperately trying to reach the sea. It’s estimated that out of about 1,000 turtles that hatch, only one will reach adulthood so anything that makes a hatchling’s life harder is a big problem. In addition to being physical barriers, the presence of plastic fragments can impact the permeability and temperature of sediments which can negatively impact sex ratios and hatchling success rates.
Once in the water, the problems continue. For example, plastic often gets entangled in “ghost” fishing gears (fishing gear that has been lost, dumped or abandoned) and this can easily cause injury to a turtle which can have detrimental impacts on a turtle’s ability to swim and feed. Plastic can also easily be mistaken for food and accidently swallowed by turtles, as well as a range of other marine animals – birds, for example, are often attracted to the smell of the algae that grows on floating plastic. Because it’s impossible to digest plastic, marine organisms develop infections and blockages of the digestive systems, often with devastating consequences.
So what are we doing about it? As I’m sure you will be aware, in the last few months there has been an incredible swell in global attention on plastics. We’re working hard to ensure that Kenya plays its role in the fight against plastics.
Education is key and we’re working with schools, the general public and policy makers to raise awareness and ultimately change behaviour when it comes to plastic use. At the same time, we’re piloting and implementing a range of initiatives focused on plastic production and waste management. In my earlier blogs, you may have read about our beach clean-up efforts. We’re also working with local women’s groups to find novel ways to turn plastic waste into a profitable business ventures, such as the ‘trash to cash initiative’ which recycles discarded flip-flops and other marine debris into products jewellery, accessories and one-off sculptures to be sold to tourists.
We know there’s a long way to go yet, but we know we have to do this for the good of our marine habitats and the species and communities that depend on them.