A baby sea turtle, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, died recently and shortly after it was found to have had 104 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center shared a photo of the turtle with the 104 pieces of plastic it had ingested next to it. The photo has since gone viral, once again bringing attention to the plastic pollution issue we face.
"It was weak and emaciated. I could just tell it wasn't doing well," Emily Mirowski, a sea turtle rehabilitation assistant at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, told CNN.
A variety of plastic—from balloons to bottle caps—were discovered in the turtle’s stomach when it was dissected. Unfortunately, it’s a tale that’s all too common for the staff at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center during the washback season, a time when exhausted, recently hatched baby turtles wash back onto the beach during or after a storm.
When baby turtles first hatch, they head out to sea and live on mats of floating seaweed for the first few years. But the baby turtles aren’t the only thing attracted to the seaweed—microplastics are too. The tiny pieces of microplastics look like food to the babies, so they eat them. The plastic then makes them feel full, but in reality, they haven’t received any nutrition, so by the time they washback to shore and end up at the center they’re weak and malnourished.
To help rehabilitate the washbacks, the center places them on floating hammocks to allow their bodies to rest. They provide them with fluids and care, to help pass the plastics. However, not every washback survives. Microplastics are having a devastating effect on baby sea turtles.
Photo courtesy: Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
“100% of our washbacks that didn’t make it had plastic in their intestinal tracks,” Gumbo Limbo Nature Center wrote on their Facebook page.
And microplastics harm more than just the baby sea turtles that don’t make it.
“We feel it is safe to assume that plastic debris is now found in almost every young sea turtle. While some turtles die from impaction, we also find plastic in stronger turtles expected to be released,” Gumbo Limbo Nature Center shared in another Facebook post.
After the turtles at the center have recovered, they are brought back out to sea where they’ll once again run the risk of eating plastic. Plastic bags, for example, are mistaken for jellyfish, one of a sea turtle’s favorite snacks.
Single-use plastic is often seen as “convenient,” but a material that doesn’t decompose and simply breaks down into smaller, potentially harmful, pieces is not worth the convenience. Now, more than ever, it's time we change our ways. Remember, every little bit helps.