Plastic waste taking toll on Florida wildlife

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How much more educating must be done before we begin to attack this problem?

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Plastic waste taking toll on Florida wildlife

BY ZACHARY T. SAMPSON

Times Staff Writer Nov. 19, 2020

Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest sea turtles in the world and also the most endangered.

In 2010, one such turtle swimming off of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico struggled with a plastic bag, filled with sand, wrapped around its neck. Researchers believe the bag suffocated the turtle, or acted as an anchor, pulling the turtle underwater, where it drowned.

Untold hundreds of animals are killed or hurt by plastic waste just like this in American waters every year, according to a new report estimating part of the toll from the environmental advocacy organization Oceana. The group spent about 6 months gathering reports from 13 organizations across the country. In that short period, it compiled evidence of roughly 1,800 sea turtles and marine mammals affected by plastics, including the Kemp’s ridley, dating to 2009.

“It’s not a remote problem. The items we found inside these animals are common everyday items that we use,” said Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana.

The total is a certain undercount of the harm caused by plastic debris. No entity maintains a comprehensive, public accounting across the nation and across species. Oceana’s report does not tally up all the shorebirds wrapped in nets and fishing line, for instance, and the agency acknowledges it “is a partial snapshot of a staggering problem.”

But the report nonetheless lists numerous examples of litter, like children’s toys and shipping bands, disfiguring or debilitating marine life, slicing into dolphins’ skin and filling turtles’ stomachs. It mentions 700 Florida manatees, dozens of which Oceana said could have died in part because of plastics, according to the group’s review of data from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Like manatees, nearly 90 percent of the animals included are threatened or endangered. One manatee died with plastic bags wadded into balls in its stomach, one about the size of a cantaloupe, according to state research cited by Oceana.

Florida was not alone in the damage: Scientists wrote of a sandwich bag encircling the neck of a seal in New York and a whale in Virginia with its stomach cut by a DVD case. A dolphin in California swallowed a food wrapper that got stuck in its esophagus.

The most common plastic pollutants include fishing line, bags, balloons and food containers. Many of the animals swallowed garbage, though in a number of cases they were entangled in strips and sheets of plastic, like a sea turtle with a plastic ring over its body.

Plastic production has increased over time, Warner said, and is expected to continue to expand. In many cases, she said, Oceana reviewers were not given animals’ exact causes of death, but they nonetheless identified dozens of instances in which plastic was at least a contributor.

For biologists in Florida, the report is unsurprising.

“I’ve seen lots of water bottles, plastic bags. I’ve seen a mattress … lots of coolers,” said Shannon Gowans, a biology professor at Eckerd College, who is frequently on the water. She has studied dolphins and whales for 25 years and said researchers have long known the dangers of plastic. A floating bag might look like a squid, she said, or a jellyfish. Once eaten, it does not break down.

“When you fill an animal’s stomach they don’t feel hungry, and they don’t go eat,” Gowans said. “They think they’re full even though they’re starving to death….”

“A lot of folks who live inland truly don’t recognize that their one plastic bag, their one plastic water bottle can move out into our waterways,” said Melanie Grillone, who manages the nonprofit’s marine debris program. Stormwater runoff and wind blow garbage into streams and out to the bay or gulf….

Going plastic-free initially can be expensive, Grillone said, and it is not an easy solution for everyone. But manufacturers, she said, may only start to cut back on production when more buyers demand alternatives.

“They’re going to feel they’re held accountable,” Grillone said. “It has to start there.”

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or 727-893-8804. Follow @zacksampson.

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