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Sea turtles and the real impact of plastic pollution
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Sea turtles and the real impact of plastic pollution

with Julia Reisser

Sea turtles and the real impact of plastic pollution

Julia Reisser is an oceanographer who has spent her life researching plastics. She has over 15 years’ experience travelling the world and witnessing firsthand the impacts of plastic pollution on our ocean.

From dead sea turtles washing up on the beaches of Brazil to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Julia’s seen the damage plastic can do. It’s driven her work with the Ocean Cleanup Project, and it’s why she’s now looking into micro-plastic movement and the effect of plastics on sea turtles at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Julia joins us on the Particle Podcast to provide a unique insight into the impact of marine plastics on our oceans—and what we can do to make a difference. Even if it’s something as simple as picking up some cool shades made from recycled ocean plastic from Sea2See.

Enjoyed the podcast? Let us know. Reach out to us on social media and subscribe to our show from your podcasting app. Help us share the science.

Read Transcript

Dan

Hello everyone and welcome to the Particle podcast. My name is Daniel Kelsey Wilkinson and today I come to you with a rather unsettling story. Over the past few years we’ve all become increasingly aware of the impact that plastics can have on the environment, but it’s even more challenging to actually visualise the impact, to understand the extent that plastics play, within the marine environment in particular. That’s why today we’re speaking with Julia Reisser, an oceanographer who’s dedicated her life to the study of marine plastics and also the damage they can cause to the marine wildlife. Julia can do a much better job of explaining who she is and what she does than I ever will. So let’s go straight into it.

Julia

So my name is Julia Reisser. I’m an oceanographer from Brazil. So I’ve been studying different topics about the oceans and how we can conserve it. And now I’m going to start to focus more on the impacts of plastics on large animals like sea turtles and whales and dolphins.

Dan

So, as I understand your research looks at the movement of marine plastics and how these dynamics impact ecosystems, especially marine turtle populations. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? I mean, sea turtles are beautiful creatures and I’d be unhappy to hear that, my actions, my impacts on the environment are negatively impacting them.

Julia

Yeah. So microplastics are the most common type of rubbish that we found in our oceans. They are tiny, tiny particles, smaller than a grain of sand. They come mostly from the breakdown of single use plastics that, you know, when we dump our plastic bottle or plastic bag into the ocean, there is lots of Sun and the motion of the water and heat, that overtime breaks it plastic into, smaller and smaller pieces.

The issue with that, is the plastic is getting smaller. It means that it’s more likely to be ingested by marine life, from very tiny microscopic organisms up to big whales that filter a large amounts of water. And then that plastic will also be ingested by marine life that can then have detrimental impacts on the animal that’s ingesting the rubbish.

About half of the plastic floats when it gets into the ocean, right? So it sits right at the surface and there are many large animals that also live on that part of the ocean. One example is the turtles. They breathe air like us, so they are always like close to the surface so that they can breath. Because the plastic floats at the surface and the turtle is there too, they interact lots.

There are basically two types of interaction between the plastic and the turtles. One of them is what we call entanglement. So, if there is a large item floating around and the turtle goes there, it gets tangled on that material and then it cannot swim anymore. It will start to get weak and they die. And we do find lots of a lost fishing gear that has turtles in it. Those fishing nets is why we call ghost nets. So when a fisherman doesn’t want a fishing net anymore, and sometimes they have to pay to bring it back to the sure, or they are doing illegal fishing offshore. And you want to hide the activity, it’s very common that people dump fishing nets at sea. Then that fishing net will do what we call ghost fishing. So it’s still floating around and capturing fish in turtles. That is a huge problem for turtles.

Dan

How should we begin to combat marine plastics on a global scale? I mean, is there any hope with that?

Julia

Yeah, I think there is lots of hope to solve that problem. It is a solvable problem. We do have some regulations that forbid them to dump nets at sea. But I think we are lacking a bit in enforcement. Nowadays we have no way to know how many fishing nets different boats are taking out to sea and how much they returning. But I think that there are solutions for that and perhaps some of them at least lie on technology. Nowadays there are some trackers, satellite trackers, that perhaps could be added to those nets. Perhaps we could start some monitoring programs where we know how many nets have been taken to the ocean and how many nets are coming back to ports. This way we have a bit more of a control on how much is being lost or discarded at sea.

Dan

And if we can start regulating fishing nets and fishing entanglements and net dumping, that’s going to change the marine environment hugely.

Julia

That’s correct. So when it comes to what we call the garbage patch, which are like vast areas of the open ocean where plastic them to accumulate. Like the ocean currents pretty much bring lots of rubbish to those areas and they form very big patches of plastics. And during my work at the Ocean Cleanup, I had this mission to better characterise those areas. What we found out, which was one of the most surprising findings of our research is that about half of the load of the plastic that’s in there, it’s a fishing nets. So those ghost nets. So you know, if we could clean up one of these areas and put everything on a scale, half of the load would come from fishing nets. So, it is a big problem.

Dan

So plastic pollution, global warming, climate change, ocean acidification. I’m not trying to be melodramatic. We often don’t hear many positive stories relating to the environment. It’d be great if we could actually have a discussion on a positive note. Do you have anything positive share with us that is changing within the environment?

Julia

Yeah, for sure. Like I see plastic pollution as a problem that if we really want, we can solve it. You know, it’s a solvable problem. I think we are heading towards the right direction. Back in 2011, when I started my PhD here in Perth, barely no one knew about this problem or would talk about it. You know, there was no TV programs or films or radio interviews talking about this problem and now we see lots of noise about this issue and lots of people willing to, help solve it. So this is very nice and we should just keep on this track towards solving that problem. It’s also nice to see the growth of NGOs working on cleaning areas out there. So we see lots of beach cleanups worldwide. Also ocean cleanups, like the Ocean Cleanup not-for-profit that I used to work for, are starting to do work on those oceanic garbage patch.

So it’s very amazing to see that movement. Also when you come turtles turtles it’s nice to see some areas, like for instance in Mexico. The turtles almost went extinct there because there was lots of people poaching these animals at sea to sell their meats and use the shell to do different things. And through a dialogue between researchers and those poachers they realised that those turtles were worth more alive than dead. So things started to change and they started to care for the turtles and see that they could be a very good asset when it comes to tourism. You know, like nowadays everybody want’s to go to a beach and see the turtles and contribute to their conservation. So we really saw our shift in Mexico and other places too, where poaching activities are being replaced by tourism. Ecotourism is one. And they are being more profitable than the killing of turtles. So that’s very amazing as well to see this movement.

Dan

Wow, that’s fantastic. That’s an absolutely amazing example of how dialogue, how research, how people, can change people’s perceptions of the environment. They’re going to have the best skillset to do such a tour. They can know behaviours, they can know how to track locations.

Julia

Yeah, correct. Like they really see that that’s skill. Everybody thinks it’s amazing that they know so much about the turtles and and I think yeah, it’s a positive shift for the people that are not poachers anymore, but also for the tourism, the tourists that go to those areas and learn lots from these people.

Dan

One last question I do have for you. You mentioned that NGOs are doing fantastic work and I know that you worked for the ocean cleanup. So could you tell us a little bit more about any NGOs you know that might relate to us, and also a little bit more about the ocean cleanup project as well because they do some fantastic work.

Julia

Sure. So the Ocean Cleanup is a Dutch NGO that was founded by a very young man called Boyan Slat. I started to volunteer for him when I was doing my phd and he was only 20 years old. Now he’s a little bit older, 44 I think. We started with just three people and now he has more than 70 people on staff. The main mission of this non-for-profit is to develop technologies to clean up our oceans. Right now they are mostly focused on those great garbage patches and they have lots of good offshore engineers that are really working hard towards developing technologies that could extract those plastics and bring back to shore to recycle into sunglasses and watches and things that people can wear.

Dan

Oh. So they’re actually gathering resources that they can then use later as well as cleaning up the environment.

Julia

That’s correct. Yeah. The idea is to take the rubbish, which looks ugly, and then transform that into beautiful things that people could buy and support the activities. So sunglasses, are a big one. I have a sunglasses that are made of rubbish that I collected during my research and it’s quite nice. Sunglasses out of scientific samples.

Dan

Moral fashion! That’s fantastic.

Julia

And there is also a non-for-profit working on solving the problem on land, which at the end of the day is one of the main solutions that we must work on. Right here in Perth there is a NGO called Plastic Free July that now is now famous worldwide. There are many, many countries that are doing that now, but it really started here in Perth. The idea with the Plastic Free July is to take the month of July and really think about the amount of plastic that you’re using in your daily life and try to decrease it. Particularly when it comes to those single-use plastics. You know, those items that we just used for a few seconds and then it’s thrown away, and unfortunately, it’s not being recycled and a large proportion of it is ending up in our ocean.

So, it’s a very nice experience. I was one of the first to participate and it really makes you aware of the amount of plastic that you can avoid every day in your life.

Dan

And that’s it for our show today ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for tuning in. If you happen to have anything you wish to say to us, reach out to us or anything you wish to share with us, please find us on social media. We’re on twitter with @ParticleWA. We’re also on Instagram and Facebook. Don’t forget, check out the show notes for any of the websites and links mentioned during the show. Thank you for tuning in. We’ll hear from you next time. Take care.

The Particle podcast is supported by Scitech. Empowering West Australians by increasing awareness, interest, capability, and participation in science, technology, engineering, and maths.

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