The world's largest living turtle, the leatherback, is found off of Canada's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. With a shell as long as 2.5 metres, it can weigh up to 900 kilograms. You may not think anything could get in this giant's way, but common plastic debris is causing leatherbacks terrible trouble. They mistake plastic bags or containers for jellyfish - their favourite food. Once swallowed, the plastic clogs the turtles' intestines and kills them. Leatherbacks are already endangered worldwide because humans hunt the adult turtles and their eggs for food. They certainly don't need to deal with an avoidable deadly menace like plastic debris.
The tonnes of litter tossed thoughtlessly into our waterways kills other marine species as well. Birds, turtles, and even whales swallow plastic bags and other objects, thinking they're food. Six-pack rings from beer and pop cans often strangle fish and birds. Old fishing lines, nets, kite strings, and ropes can also be deadly. When animals get tangled, the debris causes cuts and infection. Seabirds, turtles, dolphins, and seals get exhausted from trailing nets behind them, and are often choked, suffocated, or killed by infection. Recent studies in Alaska show that as many as 30,000 northern fur seals get entangled in plastic debris and die each year.
For centuries, seafarers threw their litter into the drink without a care, but that was before indestructible plastics came along. In those days, trash was made up of natural material that decomposed with no harm to wildlife. Today, litter is an enormous ecological problem; luckily there are some very easy solutions. In the Maritimes, a group of commercial fishermen has organized a successful plan to stop ocean pollution. With the Ship to Shore Trash Campaign, fishermen now bring their garbage ashore instead of tossing it overboard. Fishing boats along the Acadian shore of New Brunswick bring ashore about 9,500 kilograms of trash every week! Wildlife projects like this one could mean the difference between life and death for leatherback turtles.
Here's how you can be tender to turtles and other marine wildlife:
- Don't litter, and discourage others from doing so.
- Organize a shoreline cleanup.
- Adopt a beach! Once a week or month, pick up all the litter you find there.
- Inform your family, friends, and community about the threats plastic and other litter pose to wildlife.
- Join a group in your area that combats dumping on shores and in marine habitats. If no such local group exists, why not get one started?