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Turtles in Trouble – Case study 2

In this case study, Dr Kathy Townsend discusses how engaging citizen scientists helped to change legislation around single use plastic. People power!

It all started with a tiny, sick green sea turtle washed up on the shores of North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) in Australia.

In 2006, a member of the local indigenous Quandamooka community brought the sick and weak 22cm sea turtle to the local marine research station. It was triaged and placed on a drip, but unfortunately it did not make it through the night.

A necropsy was performed and the cause of death was determined to be due to gut impaction. This was caused by over 40 pieces of marine debris, consisting primarily of plastics, clogging the animals gut. This lead to infection and the resultant septicaemia ultimately killed the tiny turtle.

Soon other sea turtles from across all species and age classes were brought to the research station. With up to 250 sea turtle strandings in the region each year, it became obvious that the team needed help to quantify the impact marine debris and from this the citizen science project “Turtles in Trouble” was created.

Turtles in Trouble grew to become a multi-partner research and outreach program which engaged with indigenous community members, students, corporate volunteers, and members of the general public. Once a month, over a space of 6 years, 8-10 volunteers would spend the day at the research station, helping with sea turtle necropsies, and undergoing beach surveys. These volunteers contributed an estimated 4,800 person hours to the project.

One of the first questions Turtles in Trouble set out to answer was, “are sea turtles being selective or are they just randomly consuming whatever rubbish they came across?” To do this, the team compared the items that were being found in the environment to those found within the stomachs of the sea turtles. It was discovered that, indeed the sea turtles were selecting for certain items, in particular – plastic bags, balloons, and hard plastic fragments.

With the help of citizen scientists the team were able to determine which items were causing the greatest impact on sea turtles. These results, supported by powerful images, narratives and impactful first-hand experiences of the volunteers drove media content, pushing the plastics issue higher up the political agenda, resulting in direct legislative change.

Just 15 years after the very first juvenile green sea turtle was found washed up on North Stradbroke Island with a gut full of discarded plastic, Australia now has bans on mass balloon releases, single use shopping bags, plastic straws and single use take away containers and cutlery. All thanks to the help from citizen scientists.

People Power!

The work has not yet finished though, the Turtles in Trouble team is now testing to see if the legislation is actually working. We are continuing our research: surveying beaches and undergoing necropsies. If the legislation is working, we should see fewer of the banned items along our beaches and found inside of sea turtles, as time goes on.

Watch this space!

Article based upon: Donnelly, A.P., Munoz-Perez, J.P., Jones, J., and Townsend, K.A. (2020) Turtles in Trouble – the argument for sea turtles as flagship species to catalyse action to tackle marine plastic pollution: case studies of cross sector partnerships from Australia and Galapagos. Testudo 9(2): 69 – 82

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Life Below Water: Conservation, Current Issues, Possible Solutions

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