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Sample Research Paper on How Does Plastic Debris Affect Sea Turtles? (How Plastic Imperils Sea Turtles)

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Sample Research Paper on How Does Plastic Debris Affect Sea Turtles? (How Plastic Imperils Sea Turtles)

Pollution has been listed as the primary global-scale threat to marine life, and over the years, the oceans are facing a dangerous kind of pollutant in the form of plastic debris. The global annual production of plastic has risen from 1.5 million to 299.0 million metric tons over a period of 65 years, accounting for 60-80 percent of marine litter (Nelms et al. 6). Out of this value, an estimated value between 4-12 million metric tons finds its way into the oceans through winds and rivers. There is an alarming increase in the quantity of macro-plastics and micro-plastics due to the overflow in production, distribution and disposal of plastic materials. Micro-plastics are the result of the effect of wave action, exposure to ultraviolet light, and physical abrasion that breaks down large plastics and fibers from clothes during washing (Schuyler 129). These materials endanger the marine life as the pieces of plastic often move by wind gusts and ocean currents to remote parts of the ocean that might otherwise be out of reach for humans (Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 133). The paper focuses on imperils of plastic wastes on sea turtles. Various research works have shown that every species of the sea turtle consume fragments of plastic and they are at higher risk given that they are visual hunters.

Plastic debris threatens many forms of sea life, but the turtles are of particular interest given their complex life histories and their highly mobile lifestyle into different habitats, which expose them to harm from plastic fragment through various ways Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 1330). Research has established that even small quantities of plastic debris kill the sea turtles leading to the classification of different turtle species as endangered or threatened and one in three of them have ingested plastic fragments (Dengate n.p).


Population Status Under the Endangered Species Act


Endangered (Florida and Mexico’s Pacific Coast breeding colonies); Threatened (All other areas)



Kemp’s Ridley






Olive Ridley

Endangered (Mexico’s Pacific Coast breeding colonies); Threatened (All other areas)

 Source: (Allison, et al. 4) Table showing the population status of each turtle species inhabiting United States waters

The sea turtles have been observed to confuse buoyant plastic debris for food, such as jellyfish and the also face the danger of entanglement (Esteban n.p.). The danger is even greater during periods that the jellyfish is scarce due to seasonal changes. Apart from the dangers that come through consumption, plastic materials littered on the beaches lead to degradation of habitats and ecosystems; for instance, they alter the required temperatures of the sand needed for incubation of turtle eggs, thereby skewing the sex ratios of the nestlings (Choi and Karen n.p.). Allison, et al. (7) indicates that the threat to the survival of sea turtles has far-reaching implications ecologically (contribute to the health of natural ecosystems), economically (contribute to global economies through tourism), and culturally (figures of heritage in many cultures). The last two decades has seen an increase in the number of buildings encroaching the coastlines in terms of hotels, residential homes, and parking lots. Increased human presence at these areas is directly proportional to the amount of plastic wastes disposed along the shores and into the waters (Allison, et al. 27).


The structure of the turtles also makes them vulnerable to the dangers of swallowing plastic debris (Nelms et al. 6). A turtle has a downward-facing spine in their throat that strains the ease of regurgitation. A leatherback turtle consumes at least 50 jellyfish every day, which implies that during periods of food scarcity, they eat plastic fragments (Mrosovsky, Geraldine and Michael 287). Most of the turtles die from ingesting the plastic fragments, and those that survive live with blocked or ruptured digestive tracks. Adverse conditions could also indicate dietary dilution, where the stomach chamber of the turtle becomes fully occupied with nonfood items, thereby resulting in starvation, undernourishment, and impaired immunity (Eriksen 72).

The plastic fragments trapped in their intestines impede their ability to swim and dive in the marine waters (Choi and Karen n.p.). Sometimes the swallowed debris is sharp-pointed, thereby perforating the gut, leading to ulceration and tissue death. For instance, hooks normally used by fishermen have caused the deaths of thousands of various species inhabiting the Mediterranean Sea (Tomas et al. 213). Other investigations done on dead marine turtles have revealed that just a small amount of consumed plastic fragments has the potential to cause death (Eriksen 72). For instance, one study done on 38 dead juvenile green turtles in Southern Brazil showed that 60.5 percent of them had swallowed plastic and it was the main cause of death in 13.2 percent (Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 1333).

Ingestion of monofilament line is also a worrying aspect that leads to mortality among sea turtles (Schuyler 130). It is a scenario where the debris causes the gut to thicken such that it becomes near impossible for food to pass through the gut. The plastic fragments take up the gut space, thus, limiting its capacity to hold and transfer food (Nelms et al. 6). It poses a much bigger problem to younger turtles given their nutritional needs. Trapped gases in the stomach of turtles due to poor decomposition of plastic debris cause the turtles to float, thereby making them easy targets for predators or causing them to die out of starvation.

Large sized plastics are the biggest polluters as they disintegrate slowly over time into smaller pieces that are more toxic and easily consumed by the turtles (Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 1330). Additionally, various kinds of plastic are manufactured using toxic additives that are poisonous to the turtles and could lead to immune-suppression and hormonal imbalances. Micro-plastics have a large surface area to volume ratio and can attract hydrophobic contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls, which that can get into turtle tissues when consumed (Schuyler 132). Ingestion of the plastic fragments at the early stages of life leads to reduced rates of growth, a longer period of development, decreased level of energy reserves, which ultimately leads to minimal survival and reproduction rates. As the turtles grow, their feeding habits change over time to diets that are more specialized.

Carnivores like the loggerhead, Kemps Ridley, Olive Ridley, and Flatback are at more risk consuming contaminated micro-plastics, while other species are at more risk swallowing plastics resembling their prey (Nelms et al. 6, Tomas et al. 214). For instance, transparent, soft plastic wastes look almost similar to the natural structure of sea grasses and gelatinous prey that are essential food sources for the various species of turtles (Schuyler 14).


Fishing gear that is either lost or abandoned is also a key threat to the survival of the marine turtles. Structurally, turtles are ill equipped to navigate and escape the threats posed by fishing gear, particularly the trawling nets. The turtles are often attracted by the fish trapped in these nets and fishing nets and get entangled in them too, which could lead to drowning and injuries like abrasions and loss of limbs (Nelms et al. 7). Due to the non-biodegradable nature of the plastic matter used to make the fishing gear, it remains to impose negative economic effects on the marine surroundings. Reasons for loss and abandonment of the fishing gear may range from bad weather, inadvertent cutting of buoys by vessels to intentionally leaving them in the ocean as a more convenient way of illegal disposal (Eriksen 73).

Abandoned or misplaced fishing gear has the potential to move uncontrollably over long distances through the ocean while carrying along with it all types of species and objects along its way, including sea turtles (Tomas et al. 214). The entangled sea turtles are rendered immobile and may be transported to predator habitats or restricted from feeding and face eventual death (Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 1330)Fishing gear presents a unique form of plastic waste that becomes bio-fueled overtime, thereby attracting ocean grazers and predators and entangles them. The ghost nets have been considered by some researchers as the most dangerous pollutant and a “killing machine” that will never stop entangling and killing (Esteban n.p., Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 1330).

There are significant gaps in knowledge relating to entanglement due to the widespread distribution of plastic materials and the locomotion caused by tides and ocean currents (Eriksen 72). It is therefore acceptable to state that many individual cases of entanglement go unnoticed and unpublished (Esteban n.p.). The rates of entanglement happening in the land areas, as opposed to those at sea through fishing gear are greatly underestimated. The fact that plastic materials are usually durable and cannot be easily broken down makes the estimation of time they take to remain in their original forms or period to disintegrate difficult. Increased dumping of plastic matter is worrying because as debris is slow to disintegrate, new ones are added and accumulation continues (Choi and Karen n.p.). Other research works have indicated that for the period between 1994 and 1998, the quantity of plastic wastes along the European coastline doubled and rose by 100-fold in the southern parts of the ocean (Eriksen 71).

Degradation of Habitat and Ecosystems

Plastic waste may lead to the degradation of key habits that are crucial to the survival of the sea turtles (Nelms et al. 7). For instance, nesting areas for turtles have frequently suffered from sinks with plastic fragments making it difficult for the nesting turtles to ascend to positions where they can safely lay their eggs. The amount of debris in the nests also influences the success rates in terms of hatching the laid eggs (Choi and Karen n.p.). Additionally, given that sea turtles rely on the coral reefs for their food, plastic waste may damage or reduce the health of these coral reefs through suffocation, abrasion, blockage of light, and accumulation of sediments (Schuyler 14).

The distribution of micro-plastics and macro-plastics on the shores and in the oceans can greatly interfere with the quality of such vital habitats leading to alterations in the available food. The lifestyle of turtles, which includes spending a small part of their lives on land while the rest in the marine waters, taking long to reach sexual maturity (some species over 30 years) and the migratory nature pose a huge challenge to the efforts aimed at conserving them. The plastic fragments are found in all areas they live, be it the time on land or at the sea. This implies that the plastic matter that threatens their survival is part of their everyday life and surroundings (Allison, et al. 29). The various turtle species go through periods of pelagic drifting with currents, which aid in the locomotion of hatchlings to productive hotspots (Nelms et al. 7, Eriksen 72). In the same way, these oceanic processes carry along floating anthropogenic debris, leading to a spatial overlap of plastics and baby turtles, which may be an ecological trap.

The sex of turtles is dependent on temperature; therefore, the alterations caused by the plastic debris bring about an imbalance in the genders of the species. These conditions may cause the birth of more male counterparts than females, and vice-versa, which may lead to extinction of the species. The plastic fragments also trap hatchlings in their nests; thereby, causing their death. When the baby turtles make it out of their nests, strong ocean currents carry them along with plastic material, which further exposes the turtles to the plastic (Choi and Karen n.p.). The danger is even greater given that the size of the baby turtles is much smaller in comparison to that of the plastic materials. Studies over time have shown a continuous increase in plastic debris ingestion since the 1980s, but there are fears that the numbers may be underestimated because most of the victims are eaten, sink, or moved to areas that are inaccessible to humans (Mrosovsky, Geraldine and Michael 287).

Course of Action

Public education is the first solution to combating the danger caused by the plastic debris on the sea turtles (Schuyler 14). People can get involved in this course by using the strategy of reduce, reuse, and recycle of plastics, as wells as using reusable cloth bags in place of plastic containers while shopping. The public can be enlightened on the importance of keeping the environment clean by simply avoiding littering habits and volunteering at their local beaches during cleanup events (Martin 166). Additionally, they can be taught about safe disposal of wastes and ensuring that their garbage is properly secured to prevent any plastics from flying away. Holidays are periods when most plastic materials are disposed; therefore, safe practices such as not releasing balloons into the air will prevent them from reaching the ocean water where they are consumed by turtles mistaking them for food.

Many municipalities and countries across the globe have implemented policies that impose bans on plastic bags and certain types of fishing gear, with many others are following. For instance, Canada, the United States, Australia, and European countries have considered bans and other measures to minimize consumption. A case study of Ireland reveals that from the time when a tax on plastic bags was introduced in 2002, their use has reduced by almost ninety percent. In 2008, Chinese State Council introduced a countrywide ban on plastic bags, which was projected to save the country an estimated 37 million barrels of oil (Choi and Karen n.p.). Therefore, more countries should be urged to join in the course through heavy taxes, bans, and other deterrent measures.

Strategies for the prevention of loss of fishing gear through education and increasing awareness about their harmful effects alongside enforcement of stringent laws that prohibit the act of dumping the fishing gear should be encouraged. Responsible/ethical fishing practices and technological advancements that protects or ensures minimal harm to the ecosystem should be supported. The introduction of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) has significantly minimized mortality when trawling, but they have not been accepted all over the world. Studies on areas they have been used have also revealed that TEDs cause stress, injuries, and intermittent death to the turtles. The best solution would involve engaging a set of other practices alongside TEDs, which include reducing fishing efforts, allocating time to the activity, and enclosing the earmarked areas. Moreover, lost fishing gear can be retrieved and put back to ethical use (Esteban n.p.). Demonstrations can also be held with placards and through other media such as street video documentaries to raise and promote awareness.

While most of the research work has focused on green and loggerhead turtles and the Atlantic Ocean there exist substantial gaps in knowledge that need to be explored (Tomas et al. 211). Researchers need to carry out more studies regarding the effects of exposure of plastic debris on all the seven species of sea turtles across their life stages and a wider geographical area. More data should be collected to cover a variety of geographic, species, and life-stage scales to contribute to a global-scale metadata base (Bugoni, Lı́giaand Maria 1336). The data could also be complemented by a research study focused on the sizes and the various types of plastics consumed by turtles to give accurate data and show patterns of selectivity.

Oceanographic modeling may be done frequently to establish reliable patterns of debris movement and to reveal hotspots of vulnerability in all areas around the world. There should also be investigations to determine the presence and probable trophic transfer of micro-plastic debris within food webs (Nelms et al. 7). Additionally, more studies should be directed towards key turtle habitats, specifically in quantifying plastic distributions and densities and their effect on nesting areas in terms of sex ratios and nest success (Choi and Karen n.p.).


Marine debris, particularly plastic fragments as a menace to sea turtles, is a global phenomenon that should be taken seriously. Almost all the research investigations carried out indicate plastic debris as a major cause of mortality in sea turtle (Schuyler 129). While scientists work to advance knowledge and understanding on this topic, every individual in their capacity should ensure that they do whatever they can to minimize plastic pollution. They can get involved in averting the menace by influencing the actions of governments, companies, and other people (Esteban n.p.). Daily life should incorporate refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling plastic matter and putting leaders and businesses to task to have cumulative effort towards minimizing the menace of plastic debris.

The reason(s) why sea turtles ingest plastic debris is unknown; even though an idea that the debris resembles and is mistaken for jellyfish has been widely accepted (Schuyler 14). It may also be possible that the turtles have lower discrimination potential when it comes to feeding habits. Younger turtles are particularly more vulnerable to plastic fragments given that they are usually in close association with areas that seem to accumulate debris (Nelms et al. 6). However, most of the turtle species are exposed to the danger of debris as their feeding habits are usually near the shore where a greater percentage of human dumping takes place (Tomas et al. 213).





















Works Cited

Allison, et al. “U.S. Sea Turtles: A Comprehensive Overview of Six Troubled Species.” Oceana.

Bugoni, Leandro, Lı́gia Krause, and Maria Virgı́nia Petry. “Marine debris and human impacts on sea turtles in southern Brazil.” Marine pollution bulletin 42.12 (2001): 1330-1334.

Choi, Ga-Young, and Karen L. Eckert. Manual of best practices for safeguarding sea turtle nesting beaches. WIDECAST, Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, 2009.

Dengate , Cayla. “University Of Queensland Study Shows One In Three Turtles Have Eaten Marine Plastic.” HuffPost Australia, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 3 May. 2016.

Eriksen, Marcus, et al. “Plastic pollution in the South Pacific subtropical gyre.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 68.1 (2013): 71-76.

Esteban, Michelle. “Tracking down ghost nets.” European Cetacean Bycatch Campaign Website (2002).

Martin, Jeannie Miller. “Marine debris removal: One year of effort by the Georgia Sea turtle-center-marine debris initiative.” Marine pollution bulletin74.1 (2013): 165-169.

Mrosovsky, Nicholas, Geraldine D. Ryan, and Michael C. James. “Leatherback turtles: the menace of plastic.” Marine pollution bulletin 58.2 (2009): 287-289.

Nelms, Sarah E., et al. “Plastic and marine turtles: a review and call for research.” ICES Journal of Marine Science: Journal du Conseil (2015): fsv165.

Schuyler, Qamar A., et al. “Mistaken identity? Visual similarities of marine debris to natural prey items of sea turtles.” BMC ecology 14.1 (2014): 14.

Schuyler, Qamar, et al. “Global analysis of anthropogenic debris ingestion by sea turtles.” Conservation biology 28.1 (2014): 129-139.

Tomas, J., et al. “Marine debris ingestion in loggerhead sea turtles, Caretta caretta, from the Western Mediterranean.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44.3 (2002): 211-216.

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