Plastic and marine turtles: a review and call for research

Nelms, Sarah E., Duncan, Emily M., Broderick, Annette C., Galloway, Tamara S., Godfrey, Matthew H., Hamann, Mark, Lindeque, Penelope K., and Godley, Brendan J. (2015) Plastic and marine turtles: a review and call for research. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 73 (2). pp. 165-181.

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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.

Item ID: 42953
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1095-9289
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© International Council for the Exploration of the Sea 2015.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Funders: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Darwin Initiative for the Survival of the Species (DISS), University of Exeter, European Union Seventh Framework Programme (EU FP7)
Projects and Grants: NERC Discovery Grant NE/L007010/1, EU FP7 308370
Date Deposited: 08 Mar 2016 00:15
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050202 Conservation and Biodiversity @ 100%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9608 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity > 960808 Marine Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity @ 100%
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