Plastic and marine turtles: a review and call for research
Plastic debris is now ubiquitous in the marine environment affecting a wide range of taxa, from microscopic zooplankton to large vertebrates. Its persistence and dispersal throughout marine ecosystems has meant that sensitivity toward the scale of threat is growing, particularly for species of conservation concern, such as marine turtles. Their use of a variety of habitats, migratory behaviour, and complex life histories leave them subject to a host of anthropogenic stressors, including exposure to marine plastic pollution. Here, we review the evidence for the effects of plastic debris on turtles and their habitats, highlight knowledge gaps, and make recommendations for future research. We found that, of the seven species, all are known to ingest or become entangled in marine debris. Ingestion can cause intestinal blockage and internal injury, dietary dilution, malnutrition, and increased buoyancy which in turn can result in poor health, reduced growth rates and reproductive output, or death. Entanglement in plastic debris (including ghost fishing gear) is known to cause lacerations, increased drag—which reduces the ability to forage effectively or escape threats—and may lead to drowning or death by starvation. In addition, plastic pollution may impact key turtle habitats. In particular, its presence on nesting beaches may alter nest properties by affecting temperature and sediment permeability. This could influence hatchling sex ratios and reproductive success, resulting in population level implications. Additionally, beach litter may entangle nesting females or emerging hatchlings. Lastly, as an omnipresent and widespread pollutant, plastic debris may cause wider ecosystem effects which result in loss of productivity and implications for trophic interactions. By compiling and presenting this evidence, we demonstrate that urgent action is required to better understand this issue and its effects on marine turtles, so that appropriate and effective mitigation policies can be developed.