Majority of turtles found dead in Sharjah ate plastic waste, study finds

More than half of the turtles found dead on Sharjah’s east coast had eaten marine debris, such as nets or pieces of plastic, according to a new study.

One turtle had over 150 pieces of debris in its body, while another had numerous punctures in the gastrointestinal tract.

Researchers say the public can help combat the problem by reducing the number of plastic bags and other disposable items they use.

Overall, three-quarters of the dead green turtles and 57% of the dead loggerhead turtles had ingested objects such as bottle caps, ropes and plastic bags.

Although marine debris does not directly kill a turtle, it can be harmful

Fadi Yaghmour, Environment and Protected Areas Authority

Fadi Yaghmour, a researcher at the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority and the study’s first author, called the debris a “serious threat.”

“At first we were surprised at the frequency and high amounts of marine debris ingested,” he said.

“We saw young green turtles that ingested more than 300 pieces of plastic and other marine debris.

“It seems to have been something that went undetected for a very long time, especially in an animal that has received a lot of research attention.”

Looks like food

Green turtles tend to eat large amounts of lighter debris.

Their natural diet includes jellyfish, cuttlefish, algae, and seagrass, so animals mistake debris like ropes and bags for food.

Loggerhead turtles eat gastropods, often snails and similar creatures, and bivalves, so hard plastics, such as bottle caps and metal objects appear to resemble their food.

Debris is mostly found in the intestines of turtles and usually passes through and is released.

However, especially in green turtles, objects like plastic bags can get stuck in the esophagus – the tube connecting the throat and stomach – and in the stomach, causing blockages that can prove fatal. .

Marine debris was mostly found in the intestines, suggesting that most of the objects will pass through and be released.

Hooks and other fishing debris, including rusty fragments of fishing traps, are also potentially fatal. One turtle contained 32 pieces of a rusty fishing trap, which had punctured the entire length of the gastrointestinal tract.

“Even though marine debris does not directly kill a turtle, it can be harmful,” Yaghmour said.

“Marine debris can make a turtle feel full once it eats it, but it doesn’t gain any nutrition, so it will essentially starve itself. “

Juvenile green turtles are particularly susceptible to ingesting debris because their omnivorous diet causes them to perceive a wide variety of items as food.

According to a study published in 2015 in the journal Science, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic debris enter the world’s oceans each year.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature describes it as a danger to hundreds of marine species, including seabirds, whales and fish, due to the dangers associated with its consumption, entanglement or his suffocation.

Plastic is a new problem

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Georgia Tolley.  New.  Nature.  Sheikh Fahim Al Qassimi rescued a turtle and took it to Burj Al Arab Turtle Rehabilitation Sanctuary for surgery.  Unfortunately, a fin had to be amputated after it got tangled in fishing line.  They still hope he can be released back into the wild, if he can still dive.  Sunday March 14, 2021. Dubai.  Chris Whiteoak / The National

Reports of stranded turtles reach EPAA in Sharjah from the public, lifeguards, forest rangers, police, beach cleaners and others who work on or around beaches.

Live turtles are being delivered to rescuers to be rehabilitated, but the EPAA is conducting post-mortem examinations on those found dead, some of which were killed by collisions with boats and entanglements in nets.

The new document, published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and titled “Junk Food: Interspecies and Intraspecies Distinctions in the Ingestion of Marine Debris by Marine Turtles,” examines data from 64 autopsies.

It stems from a project launched in 2015 to help a wide variety of stranded marine life. In 2018, researchers published a study on green turtles, but the latest research extends it to loggerhead turtles and is analyzing more animals.

The problem arose mainly in the last few decades – a late 1970s study of the diet of turtles in the Gulf of Oman did not mention plastic as something animals ate.

Contacted by researchers in Sharjah, the scientist behind this study confirmed that turtles were not consuming plastic at the time.

“We are starting to realize that, as the data gets stronger, this threat is particularly serious for marine turtles in the region,” he said.

Steps to deal with the problem

Mr Yaghmour said to protect turtles and other marine life, including whales, dolphins, reefs and other marine habitats, the amount of debris entering the marine environment should be minimized.

“What the general public can do is reduce the use of single-use materials, plastics and the like: disposable cups, single-use plastics, unnecessary use of plastic bags,” Yaghmour said.

“All of these things contribute greatly to the amounts of debris in the environment and it takes decades for them to break down, just into microplastics, which can persist much, much longer.”

Mr Yaghmour said he was happy that the UAE is now taking action to deal with the problem of plastic waste.

In early 2020, Abu Dhabi announced plans to charge for and phase out disposable plastic bags, and in October of the same year, Waitrose, the UK supermarket chain, introduced a 25 fils per bag charge in its stores in the United Arab Emirates.

In early 2021, the Cabinet approved the UAE’s Circular Economy Policy, which aims to promote, among other things, efficient waste management and environmental protection.

“I am quite optimistic that, at least in the United Arab Emirates, the appropriate measures will be taken,” he said. “There has been a recent trend to develop a circular economy in the UAE. There are other steps to resolve and minimize the problem.

Previous research reported by The National found that hundreds of camels had died in the UAE after eating plastic bags.

As of 2008, around 300 camels analyzed in the field or in the laboratory by scientists at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai had stomachs filled with polybezoars, which are large pieces of plastic such as ropes or plastic bags.

Updated: November 21, 2021 04:21

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