NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

Does Marine Debris Impact Sea Turtle Nesting?

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By: Kimberly Albins, Gulf of Mexico Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

Cape San Blas, a remote area in Northwest Florida that sits about 45 miles east of Panama City, is home to prime sea turtle nesting habitat. Unfortunately, erosion in this area began to cause a large amount of marine debris to litter its shores. Old concrete buildings, fencing material, pilings, and many other forms of debris could be found scattered within sea turtle nesting areas.

Metal fence on a beach.

Fencing material was found littering prime sea turtle nesting habitat on the shores of Cape San Blas. (Photo Credit: Dr. Ikuko Fujisaki)

In 2012, the University of Florida received funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant to remove these large debris items and assess the impact on sea turtles. To assess the impact of removing debris, observations were made on an experimental section of the beach where large debris had been removed. Recently, the project leads, Drs. Ikuko Fujisaki and Meg Lamont, published their findings from this assessment in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology (check out the abstract here). As presented in their paper, they found that removing debris increased sea turtle nests by 200%! While many have assumed that debris on a beach would inhibit the ability of a sea turtle to find the appropriate place to nest, this research allows us to say “here is the proof!”

A loggerhead sea turtle nesting in Northwest Florida.

A loggerhead sea turtle can be seen nesting in Northwest Florida. (Photo Credit: Margaret Lamont)

As this study corroborates, sea turtles are particularly vulnerable to marine debris. They can ingest plastics, become entangled in debris such as derelict fishing gear, and we now know that their important nesting habitats are also impacted. It is unfortunately all too common for sea turtles to ingest plastic debris, and by working to remove debris and prevent more from occurring, we hope to change that.

Diamond-shaped holes in a plastic bag.

A photo by blog author Kim Albins shows a plastic bag found on a Texas beach. The diamond-shaped holes are turtle bites and are unfortunately an excellent example of plastic ingestion by sea turtles, a (sadly) very commonly-observed occurrence. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Like all of our Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant projects, removal of debris was just one aspect of this effort, which also worked to engage and educate citizens. Through the excellent work of the project leads along with grad students, interns, and volunteers that helped remove debris and educate citizens on the impact of marine debris on “Florida’s Forgotten Coastline,” this project:

  • removed 135.7 tons of large debris,
  • cleaned 95.9 km of beach area,
  • engaged 379 volunteers (donating 1,668 hours of time) in marine debris cleanups, and
  • reached 643 people through outreach events and classroom activities.

Keeping our beaches clean of debris will help sea turtles to thrive! The NOAA Marine Debris Program supports lots of projects that work to clean our shores, prevent more debris through education, and learn more about the marine debris issue. Do your part by picking up after yourself (every day!), following the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), and by participating in beach cleanup events!

For more on this project, check out the Marine Debris Clearinghouse. For more on what’s happening with marine debris in this region, visit the Gulf of Mexico regional page on our website.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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