By David Pendered

A stunning new report from Oceana compiles all the known harms done by plastic to sea mammals and turtles in U.S. waters since 2009. Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources contributed to findings that were released Thursday.

Oceana, Choked, Strangled, Drowned
Oceana released Thursday a report it says is the first comprehensive review of the harm caused to sea turtles and sea mammals in U.S. waters from 2009-2020. Credit: Oceana

The report arrives as some Georgia lawmakers reportedly are drafting plastics legislation for the session that begins in January. The potential proposals would seek to reduce the use of plastic bags popular with retailers, or single-use plastics, such as disposable utensils – an approach that has yet to gain traction in Georgia but is gaining ground in states including New York and Vermont, according to a report this month by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The subject of Oceana’s report is fairly well known – plastic waste is filling the seas and carpeting the beaches of remote islands.

The substance of the report is new – a compendium of all reported instances, in the U.S., of ingestion or entanglements in plastic by sea turtles or marine mammals, from 2009 to early 2020. The report’s sponsor, Oceana, was established in 2001 as a tax-exempt advocacy group focused on ocean conservation. Founders included The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

This research is groundbreaking, according to the report. The closest, and only, comparison is a 1994 study of sea turtles affected by marine debris on the U.S. East Coast. Oceana culled data provided by federal and state agencies, and wildlife organizations.

Results in the report, Choked, Strangled, Drowned: The Plastics Crisis Unfolding in Our Oceans, include:

Oceana, sea lion
A sea lion appears to have its snout stuck in a plastic container. Credit: NOAA Fisheries via Oceana
  • 1,792 documented cases of sea turtles and marine mammals ingesting or entangled in plastic;
  • Of these animals, 861 were sea turtles, representing all six U.S. species; and 931 were marine mammals, from 34 different species;
  • 88 percent of the animals were listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act;
  • Plastics that animals ate include bags, balloons, fishing line, food wrappers, DVD cases, and big sheets of plastic;
  • Plastics that entangled animals include packing straps, and bags and balloons with strings attached.

And that’s not all, according to a statement by Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana who helped write the report:

A baby turtle will be trapped in a plastic cup unless the hatchling realizes the only way out is to back up and get out of the cup. Credit: Nova Southeastern University via Oceana
  • “Before now, the evidence that many U.S. marine mammals and sea turtles were being harmed by plastic was not compiled in one place. While there may never be a complete account of the fate of all marine animals impacted by plastic, this report paints a grim picture….
  • “This report shows a wide range of single-use plastic jeopardizing marine animals, and it’s not just the items that first come to mind, like bags, balloons and bottle caps. These animals are consuming or being entangled in everything from zip ties and dental flossers to those mesh onion bags you see at the grocery store. We can only expect these cases to increase as the industry continues to push single-use plastic into consumers’ hands.”

The report’s acknowledgements include the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Two Georgia cases are cited in the report. The complete observations state:

A sea turtle is trying to expel a ribbon that’s likely attached to a balloon. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium via Oceana
A sea turtle is trying to expel a ribbon that’s likely attached to a balloon. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium via Oceana
  • “Despite being rarely seen, the 20 cases of plastic ingestion noted in pygmy sperm whales were the largest number of toothed whale cases that we compiled. In Georgia, a pygmy sperm whale – a deep-diving animal – had swallowed a large piece of plastic sheeting. The scientists who examined this animal believed that the plastic impacted its gastrointestinal tract, and that this caused its death.”
  • “In Georgia, a loggerhead sea turtle had a plastic woven bag running down its gastrointestinal tract, from its mouth, through the stomach and into the intestines. The intestines were beginning to constrict, which can have serious and potentially deadly consequences.”

Environment Georgia is one of the organizations that has lobbied the state and some local governments to reduce the use of plastics. Executive Director Jennette Gayer said Wednesday the report from Oceana and related efforts highlight the need for governments to create incentives that promote replacements to plastics that are sustainable.

“Our current system rewards waste makers. Disposable products are cheap to manufacture, but they rack up a terrible cost for the environment,” Gayer wrote in an email.  “We need a system that rewards companies for creating reusable, repairable and resilient products and reducing waste.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written...

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