Marine conservationists sound alarm about hazardous plastics in FL and other Southeastern waters

A newly hatched sea turtle is stuck in a plastic tab on a Florida beach. Credit: Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

Plastic waste kills and injures more sea turtles, manatees and marine mammals off the coasts of Florida and neighboring states than in any other region in the United States, according to an in-depth analysis of federal and state data.

Since 2009, nearly 1,000 endangered or threatened sea turtles found injured or dead along southern coastlines had eaten or become entangled in plastic waste, according to the report by Oceana, a nonprofit ocean advocacy group founded by Pew Charitable Trusts, Oak Foundation, Marisla Foundation (formerly Homeland Foundation), Sandler Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

In the same time period, 700 manatees — an icon of Florida wildlife — and 45 other endangered or threatened marine mammals found dead or injured in the same region had eaten or been ensnared in plastic.

A sea turtle was snagged in this rubber belt, which became imbedded in its carapace. Credit: Photo Credit: Sea Turtle Hospital at University of Florida Whitney Laboratory; FWC permit MTP228

By far, the leading culprit was recreational fishing line, typically monofilament that is difficult to break or dislodge, the data says.

“Oceana surveyed dozens of government agencies, organizations and institutions that collect data on the impact of plastic on marine mammals and sea turtles in the United States. We found records of almost 1,800 animals from 40 different species swallowing plastic or becoming entangled in it,” says the report, titled “The Plastics Crisis Unfolding in Our Oceans.”

Key data sources in the Oceana report include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Oceana’s report recommends ending the production of throwaway plastic products and instituting programs to support reusable packaging and containers.

Separate from the Oceana report, a coalition of more than 550 community and conservation organizations is developing a “Presidential Plastics Action Plan,” urging President-elect Joe Biden to issue executive orders shortly after taking office to curb production of throwaway plastics.

That plan is embargoed and scheduled for release on Tuesday.

A dolphin is snagged in a plastic ring. Photo Credit: Q. Gibson, University of North Florida, NMFS LOC No. 14157

The coalition includes several groups based in or with chapters in Florida, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Riverkeepers, and Surfrider Foundation, which view plastics pollution as a significant threat to marine life and to human health.

“We are in a plastics pollution crisis,” said Sarah Gledhill, Florida field campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with the Florida Phoenix on Monday. “It takes a huge toll on wildlife, and it’s also in our drinking water, on our plates and in the air we breathe.”

Gledhill says state and federal marine research data makes clear that plastics pollution is a “hazardous waste” for wildlife and humans.

“People don’t realize that the oil industry extracts fossil fuels, like fracked gas, to produce plastic consumer goods. We need to get to the root of the problem: keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground and treat plastic pollution for the hazardous waste that it is.”

Holly Parker Curry, Florida policy manager for Surfrider Foundation, said legislators in Florida have not been receptive to statewide or even local laws to stop the source of plastics pollution, such as one-use polystyrene packages, shopping bags and straws, while community organizations and volunteers are doing what they can to address the damage.

“Surfrider does beach cleanups regularly, and at every one, we consistently collect huge amounts of plastic,” Curry told the Phoenix. “For people who haven’t done one before, it’s eye-opening. They’re surprised to see, it’s not tires. It’s cigarette butts, and millions of bits of plastic that can be ingested. It does obvious harm to animals, including birds, but it’s also a human issue, since we’re at the top of the food chain. It’s pervasive. We find it everywhere.”