09 June 2011

Balloons and soft plastic kill sea turtles, slowly and painfully

Balloons, plastic bags, nylon rope, styrofoam are swallowed by sea turtles which mistake these for jellyfish, according to a recently released study by the Earthwatch Turtles in Trouble program.
Exploded balloon floating in seagrass
An exploded ballon looks very much like a jellyfish!
This was seen at Cyrene Reef.
The report provides more evidence that sea turtles are selectively preferring to eat soft plastics over other types of rubbish.

Earthwatch researcher Dr Kathy Townsend dissected and examined the guts of more than 120 dead turtles from the eastern areas of Moreton Bay in Queensland. She says soft plastic items were found more often than hard plastic, and 30% of the dead turtles she examined had ingested rubbish.

"We went out and looked at what we were finding in the guts of the turtle and then compared that to what we were finding on the beaches in which the turtles had washed up," she said. "Surprisingly what we ended up finding is that the turtles seem to be selecting or targeting soft plastics with the idea that perhaps these animals are targeting that because they look like jellyfish."
Marine litter removed from the intestines
of a sea turtle, from the Earthwatch website.

The Turtles in Trouble Facebook page reported a 14-cm tiny baby turtle with over 100 pieces of plastic in its stomach.

How does swallowing soft plastic kill a sea turtle?
from media articles on the Turtles in Trouble report

Sea turtles, because of their anatomy, cannot vomit out the plastic.

If the plastic does not come out the other end of the sea turtle, it blocks up the digestive system.

The food inside the sea turtle then starts to rot, releasing gases which causes the sea turtle float. The result is called "floating syndrome".

The sea turtle then can't dive to eat, or to escape from predators, or get away from fast moving boats.

The sea turtle also becomes dehydrated.

Even if it doesn't fall prey to predators, or get struck by boats, the sea turtle eventually dies very slowly, over months, from thirst and starvation. "It's a really long, drawn-out, painful death," Dr Townsend said.

The research found that another 6% of turtles had died after becoming entangled in rubbish.

Please don't organise mass balloon releases!
From Ivan's Lazy Lizard Tales blog about a balloon release at Sentosa.

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  1. There is no proof latex balloons is killing the turtles, latex balloons are not made from plastic.
    Please do more research before calling out that latex balloons are killing turtles.
    Latex is a biodegradable material, breaking down in the same paste as a leave that falls of a trea.
    I totally support not littering. I do organise balloon releases, but instead of using a plastic rope to hold on to, we use cotton strings that also break down.

    1. Balloon manufacturers, their marketers and affiliates (such as balloonlink.com and balloonhq.com, “The National Balloon Council”, which are main search engine results) tell the public that latex balloons are “safe” because they are bio-degradable and the degradation is comparable to that of an oak leaf.

      Oak leaves do not magically disappear when they hit the forest floor. A study published in the scientific journal ‘Soil Biology and Biochemistry’ found that about 54% of oak leaves decomposed in a two-year period, and it takes about four years for oak leaves to completely degrade under natural conditions.
      So, a balloon will take up to four years to fully degrade but it only takes seconds for an animal to choke to death, drown, or get hit by a car in their pursuit to reach the tantalizing looking object. Balloons very often explode at high altitudes resulting in a multi-pointed star configuration (demonstrated here in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HbXVVVFahM&feature=related).
      Floating on the surface of the water, they very closely resemble jellyfish – a primary food source for sea turtles. Studies have shown that sea turtles (many species of which are critically endangered) show a preference for these floating pieces of trash that likely trigger a visual cue for the animal, causing them to incorrectly assess the balloon as a food source.
      Some balloons do break into smaller pieces but these pieces also pose a threat. Balloon fragments resemble floating plankton and kelp and, when consumed, can block internal organs causing the animal to starve to death.

      Furthermore, the cotton strings and plastic ribbons that often accompany balloons can create a host of problems as animals’ limbs and beaks become entangled. The skin can be cut, the limbs restricted or the air and food passages blocked. Each of these issues impedes the animal’s ability to survive, to develop properly and to secure food.

      Regarding the biodegradability of balloons, the study mentioned above and referenced below further showed that balloons floating exposed in seawater deteriorated much slower than those exposed in air and, even after 12 months of exposure, still retained their elasticity.

      It is important to note that just because an object IS biodegradable, that does not negate its immediate harmful impacts to wildlife. It is irresponsible to equate the term ‘biodegradable’ with ‘harmless’. In addition, no matter the item or its ability to eventually biodegrade, LITTER IS LITTER and ALL litter is irresponsible.
      Thanks for your attention.
      Kristina Witter
      Wildlife Biologist
      Ft. Walton Beach, FL

    2. Thank you Kristina for your detailed response! I agree with you!

  2. micha: How long does it take for latex to completely biodegrade?

    If an intact balloon (semi-inflated or otherwise) is swallowed by a turtle, how long does it take before it is passed out or digested? And in the meantime, are there any possible negative effects on the turtle's digestive system?

    I suppose that if a turtle sees a balloon in the sea, eats it, and chokes to death, it can find some comfort in knowing that it was biodegradable.

    'Biodegradable' is a term that is often thrown around, as if it's completely safe and harmless. It only means that the item will eventually break down and decompose, but in the meantime, there is always the possibility of adverse impacts on the environment. After all, given enough time, crude oil is biodegradable.


  3. hey micha, why not ya swallow a couple of latex balloons and cotton strings and let me know how it goes for you? Biodegradable doesn't mean digestible.

  4. Pls note that even though latex is biodegradable, it takes TIME for that to happen. Meanwhile, it could have done quite some damages before it totally disintegrates. Also, the cotton strings are biodegradable, again, before that happens, it may have entangled something, thus killing it.
    Sometimes proof is not needed, just some common sense.

  5. and btw micha, how latex ballons are made - The natural rubber latex that we use comes from the sap of the rubber tree , Heveabrasiliensis, that grows in Malaysia. This sap looks like milk and is shipped to America in large ocean tanker ships. Once removed from the tree, the sap is called latex. To make this suitable for balloon production, curing agents, accelerators, oil, color, and water must be added.

    sure the balloons might be made from sap of a tree but did you forget about the usage of curing agents, accelerators, and oil. i'm sure those are real good for the animals who mistaken the balloons as food..

  6. Micha, I think you've missed the point. Yes, latex balloons may be biodegradable and hence have less impact on the environment per se, but it doesn't mean it has no impact on the animals living in that environment. These animals may inadvertently end up eating a biodegradable balloon, which incidentally, happens to be indigestable too! Common sense would hint of the sort of trouble you might encounter if you consumed a balloon. I also find it deeply ironic that you've asked the author to do more research when I doubt you yourself had done any to conclude that latex balloons, when consumed by sea turtles, has no hazardous effect on their well-being.

  7. Micha, your father seriously should have used the latex...



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