Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to our oceans and the marine life it supports. As we hit the halfway point of Plastic Free July, we speak with someone who sees the effects of these many and varied threats. Emily Best, an aquarist at SEALIFE Sydney Aquarium, has nursed several affected creatures back to health, including turtles and grey nurse sharks.
To raise awareness of plastic pollution this Plastic Free July, Emily hosted a live Facebook video, displaying plastic waste in the Aquarium’s jellyfish enclosure. We asked Emily to share some insights on the marine life in her care, how they are affected by plastic pollution – and what we can do to help.
Many, if not all species, are affected in some way by it, right down to a microscopic scale. Some animals seem to be more susceptible than others including:
For most species of sea turtle, Jellyfish is a large part of their diet. Unfortunately, plastic and jellyfish look incredibly similar, which mean many of them ingest items like plastic bags and balloons which creates blockages along their digestive tract, causing a slow and painful death. Alongside this, many turtles (as well as many other species) become entangled in plastic debris, like fishing line, ghost nets, ropes and six-pack rings.
Sub Antarctic penguins
Studies have now shown that a high number of Gentoo penguins, a species found throughout the Antarctic region, have ingested microplastics (plastic particles 5mm or smaller). These microplastics end up inside the birds through either direct ingestion (mistaken for food) or indirect ingestion (through contaminated food sources such as fish and krill). Because plastic doesn’t degrade, it simply breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, until it is present in all levels of the environment.
Little penguins are found along the shores of Australia and New Zealand, often incidentally in areas where they are directly affected by human populations. Similar to their Sub-Antarctic cousins, plastic ingestion is also common in Little penguins (again, Directly or Indirectly). However, due to their small size and closer proximity to humans, they are also at risk of becoming entangled in plastic debris. One of the penguins from the colony in Manly, Sydney, was once found wandering along the beach with a takeaway coffee cup on her head! Had it not been for some helpful passers by, she would have most likely died from starvation, or have been an easy target for predation.
Grey Nurse sharks
One of the biggest threats in to the Grey Nurse shark is entanglement in fishing gear or shark nets. Fishermen who catch them will often just cut their line to avoid personal injury, leaving the hook in the animal as well as a long trail of fishing line that the animal can become entangled in, leading to infection, or even strangulation. Despite being a protected species, they are still regularly caught, and it is not an uncommon sight to see younger sharks with hooks or line attached to them. Here at Sealife Sydney, we have been able to provide treatment to a number of wild Grey Nurse sharks that required intervention to free them from hooks, nets, elastic cord and fishing line.
Probably the most rewarding part of my career over the last 6 years has been being able to assist in the rescue of animals, mostly sea turtles and Grey Nurse sharks, affected by plastic pollution and other human impacts. Most recently, Matilda, a juvenile Green Sea turtle, came to us suffering from buoyancy issues. She ended up passing several metres of fishing line and part of a candy bar wrapper from Turkey! Her buoyancy issues then resolved, and we were able to release back into the wild about a month later. Nothing is more rewarding that seeing a turtle, you have spent months nursing back to health, swim off healthy and happy back into the big blue.
Emily’s top 5 small changes that people can incorporate into their everyday lives are:
- Use a re-useable cup for your daily coffee. It’s super easy and most cafes these days are happy to take them. If you forget it, consider dining-in!
- Buy fruits and veggies that are not wrapped in plastic. Some easy options are cucumbers with the plastic wrap, whole mushrooms in a paper bag instead of pre-cut and wrapped ones, and whole lettuce instead of pre-cut bags. You can also purchase re-useable produce bags for loose items!
- Suss out your local bulk foods store – they usually have most of the stuff you can usually buy in regular supermarkets, just in bulk bins instead of pre-wrapped bags. All you need is your own container or jar – Fill it up, and you’re good to go. They also usually have some great snacks and treats!
- Give up chewing gum! Most gums contain latex and polyvinyl acetate, which are forms of plastic, and take years to degrade, if they do at all. They also normally come in plastic packaging. Choose mints in a metal tin instead!
- Choose glass or aluminium cans instead of plastic bottles for things like soft drinks. For water, carry your own re-useable bottle with you to refill.
Most importantly, go easy on yourself if you don’t make the best choice. Awareness of your choices is the first step to reducing your plastic consumption. The zero waste movement doesn’t need a few people doing it perfectly – it needs millions of people doing it imperfectly.