SUFB 024: Protecting Sea Turtles from Plastic


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Today I wanted to go a little more in depth on a story I talked about a couple of weeks ago, which focused on that video of some researchers removing a plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle. I was lucky enough to chat with Nathan Robinson, the Research Director for the Leatherback Trust stationed in Costa Rica. Nathan’s also a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University, and is one of the researchers shown in the video.

Dr. Robinson first got interested in sea turtle research when he interned for Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. From there he got his Ph.D. with Frank Paladino at Purdue University studying sea turtles off the coast of South Africa, and was then offered his current position in Costa Rica at the Leatherback Trust. Nathan attributes this impressive itinerary to actually being based inland. “If you were working in Florida, then you’re going to work with sea turtles in Florida. The cool thing about not having any sea turtles in Indiana [is that] you have people working from all over the world.” I don’t know who Purdue’s got giving prospective student tours, but man is that a nice pitch.

When he’s not contributing to his frequent flyer miles, Nathan focuses on protecting threatened sea turtle populations. Specifically, he works on protecting their nesting habitats and migratory corridors. This way, you can protect a large amount of sea turtles at any given time without having to monitor an entire ocean. There are a lot of organizations out there who are doing the same thing, gathering data and trying to predict where and when sea turtle populations congregate. This information is communicated to fisheries managers hoping to avoid bycatch, which along with poaching and marine pollution, is one of the largest threats to sea turtles.

Because sea turtle hatchlings have such a low chance of surviving long enough to reach sexual maturity (about 999 out of 1,000 fail to make it this far), adult turtle mortality can have a huge impact on the overall population. Combine that with the immense global fishing industry and marine pollution problem we’re currently facing, and it’s no wonder why all seven species of sea turtles are listed as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered. And believe it or not, sea turtles aren’t just a charismatic species with a pretty face. They are what’s known as an umbrella species, meaning that they play a disproportionately large role in ecosystem functioning. So a decline in sea turtle abundance have unforeseen and negative consequences for fish, invertebrates, and other marine organisms.

We could spend hours talking about all the different possible solutions to the sea turtle problem. But the one I wanted to spend most of our time on is the same one I’ve brought up in a lot of my earlier podcasts: plastic pollution. If you haven’t seen the sea turtle video I referenced earlier, here it is. Just a note, it is quite powerful, graphic, and contains strong language. Nathan was one of the people in the video who removed the plastic straw from the olive ridley turtle, something that he hypothesized the turtle swallowed and then attempted to regurgitate. And while it’s undoubtedly in better shape with the straw out, the turtle was clearly in pain throughout the process. I think one of the reasons this video has over 5 million views is because it’s just so shocking. A single straw, something that we probably all use daily, caused all of this pain and emotion. Nathan informed us that the turtle, after close monitoring, seemed ok and was released back into the water. However, he also noted that probably “in excess of 50-70% of animals have plastic inside them.”

Hopefully this video can serve as a catalyst for the plastic pollution prevention movement. I’ve spoken at length about this before, so I’ll let Nathan expertly summarize it for you this time.

“Plastic is a global problem, it is not a localized issue, this is something that we’re all part of. Which also means that we’re all part of the solution for plastic pollution. And the best way to reduce plastic in the ocean is to be conscious. Be that person in the restaurant who says ‘I’ll have an orange juice but no straw please.’ The person in the supermarket who says “it’s ok, I don’t need a plastic bag, I’ve brought y own’ or “it’s just one thing, I’m just going to carry it out in my hand.’ That is, in my opinion, the best way we have at the moment to deal with the issues of plastic pollution.”

How else can you help? You can support observation research focused on studying the impacts of plastic pollution. Despite its prevalence in the ocean, little is known about its direct effects on animals like sea turtles. One way to support this research is to help fund it. Nathan’s colleague Christine Figginer out of Texas A&M has a page on GoFundMe where she’s raising money to support her research on sea turtle reproduction and conservation in the Caribbean. I’m sure any amount of generosity would be greatly appreciated. By supporting and prioritizing research on plastic pollution and the impacted marine animals, we can work together as a global community to solve this global problem.

Enjoy the Podcast!

Resources Discussed During This Episode

The Leatherback Trust

The Leatherback Trust Facebook Page

Leatherback Turtle Monitoring and Conservation Program

Purdue Department of Biology – Sea Turtle Research

Chris Figgener’s GoFundMe Page

Sea Turtle Gets A Straw Pulled Out Of Its Nose Video

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