University Of Queensland Study Shows One In Three Turtles Have Eaten Marine Plastic

17/03/2016 12:41 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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It's been called one of the most significant problems facing the world today but when Kathy Townsend started researching marine plastics and the impact it had on sea turtles, she was told it wasn't an issue.

Not on the radar.

Plastic is mostly benign, right?

Sometimes you don't want to be proven correct.

A decade later, Townsend has finished a conclusive study showing the species is in danger of extinction partly because of marine debris and one in three have eaten plastic.

Floater Syndrome from The University of Queensland on Vimeo.


In those early days she told The Huffington Post Australia she had to follow her gut.

"A few fellow colleagues asked me 'why are you doing this? It's not an issue, you know' and I'd say 'Well I think it might be'.

"The reason I thought marine debris might be a bigger issue than everyone thought was because I was at the research station on North Stradbroke Island and people were always bringing in sick and injured sea turtles for us to have a look at.

"We were finding a lot sea turtles washing up dead or dying that looked fine on the outside -- maybe a bit skinny -- but no obvious boat strikes or injuries.

"We'd take a look inside them and find plastic in their guts.

"This is where the scientist in me kicked in -- is this something actually happening or do we have a bit of a bias because, when you see something like a balloon or a plastic bag in an animal's guts, you remember it?"

She received funding from the Australian Research Council to find out whether marine debris was impacting green sea turtles on a population level.

That was how she came to find herself often driving around south east Queensland with frozen turtles in her car boot and walking volunteers through a necropsy -- animal autopsy.

"It's not very pleasant rummaging around in a dead thing but that's the only way of really finding out what caused them to die," Townsend said.

"I feel it's important. We're quantifying a problem in Australia and that research has been used all over the world. "

Over the next decade, the research conclusively showed plastic killed turtles in a number of ways: it perforated organs; it made the turtle buoyant -- so it couldn't dive for food or pieces of plastic; or it would fill the stomach to the point that food could not pass through.

"I remember this one little hatchling only about 5cm long and it had eaten a piece of hard plastic about the size of your baby fingernail, that bit was bigger than its entire stomach, so it perforated the gut and the animal had a long, unpleasant death due to septicemia," Townsend said.

Turtles in Trouble from The University of Queensland on Vimeo.

She said the plastic was most commonly from the food and beverage industry, which initially, was thought to be benign.

"There was a real perception that the types of plastic used in the food and beverage industry was quite safe because we eat from it -- it's designed so we can stick it in the microwave or put a bottle in our bags and nothing will leach out of it," Townsend said.

"I was only focusing on the physical effect of pieces of plastic but what we know now is that these plastics are a really good sponge for absorbing all the toxins that can be found in the marine environment.

"They absorb heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants that bio-accumulate, so more research is being done right now, but there's a possibility that these heavy metals and toxins are making their way into the food chain through plastics.

"Could we be eating them too? Well, it's possible, but there's no research done yet."

She's overseeing a PhD student working on an aspect of plastic and toxins and as she knows, the rate of change and research can be slow.

"In the decade I was studying turtles, people's attitudes have really shifted towards plastic," Townsend said.

"Now it's about finding a way to use this super strong, cheap, light material in a way that's more sustainable. Right now we'll use a plastic coffee lid and lined cup for 20 minutes, and then it exists in the environment for decades and decades and decades.

"Despite spending the last decade looking at some depressing stuff, I'm actually quite hopeful and I believe we've got the ability to make change in the future."

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