Saving Atlantic Loggerheads from Plastics

Nesting loggerhead at Cape Hatteras

On the evening of June 11,  two endangered Loggerhead sea turtles crawled out of the ocean and wriggled up the sand at Virginia Beach. One dug a hole, laid 150-eggs and covered them with sand before returning to sea. The eggs had to be carefully relocated by human intervention to a safer nesting spot. In about 60-days, these eggs should hatch, and the baby loggerheads will instinctively head out to the Gulf Stream to mature, taking a  giant “lazy river” ride, circulating repeatedly to the other side of the Atlantic and back for more than a decade.

Should they survive, these hatchlings already know that Virginia is for Lovers, since they are biologically encoded to return here to mate and lay their eggs.  Virginia however is at the northernmost extent of the Loggerhead range and has only a few sporadic sea turtle nests.

To more closely study Loggerhead survival, our family recently made a scientific journey to prime Loggerhead breeding territory: Hilton Head Island, S.C.

As you’ve probably guessed, this science trip was actually a planned family vacation. However, if you know me well enough, sea turtle health quickly became the vacation sub-plot. We ran the Palmetto Dunes Turtle Trot 5K — albeit at a turtle’s pace– and we attended a naturalist sea turtle seminar.

Plastic litter collected by the Tracy family.

Additionally, armed with the “knowledge” that plastics litter from thoughtless American consumers in our cities and towns is seriously harming the Loggerhead population, I enlisted my grandchildren’s assistance in picking up all the plastic litter we could find. It was two points for any plastic litter found away from the beach, five points for plastic litter on the sandy beach itself, and 10 points for any plastic litter in the ocean. We lost track of the final score, but we only found one 10-point item: I saved one clear, resealable plastic sandwich bag from floating further away into the the ocean. Parenthetically, I would say plastic sandwich bags were the biggest potential turtle problem that I perceived. According to the turtle naturalists, clear plastic bags resemble jellyfish, a turtle food.

Before I take this essay any further, I need to disclose my blasphemous personal hypothesis. I question whether a single Loggerhead turtle has ever died due to exposure to waste plastics litter from America’a towns. My thesis is that America has very good trash recycling, incineration  and landfill programs, and that American consumers are not a significant contributor to the ocean plastics problems we are hearing so much about lately.

My hypothesis above was corroborated at the naturalist’s sea turtle seminar, and also by the behavior of the local community and businesses.

The local naturalist, perhaps lacking adequate political-correctness, indicated it was mainly the Leatherback turtles — not the Loggerheads — who were most impacted by the plastics litter. Confirming that belief, there were many Loggerhead turtle safety signs on the beach enforcing local Loggerhead conservation measures — but plastic litter was not listed as a concern.  The local restaurant on the beachfront serves great Pina Coladas, which entailed using many plastic straws… within a few feet of a new Loggerhead egg nest right at their beach entrance.

Kroger apparently switched to paper grocery bags…but why? There are actually single-use plastic bag dispensers right on the beach for dog poop management.  Kroger also has tasty, cheap bottled water. Thus, I can assure you Kroger’s good name is often seen on the plastics bottle litter we recovered near the beach.

The local Walmart, somewhat comically for me, has eliminated “single-use” plastic bags by going to thicker plastic grocery bags, which the company claims are good for 125 re-uses. I saw one family leave the Walmart with about 20 of the thicker plastic bags, full of groceries, in their cart. One wonders how they are going to get 125 re-uses out of all of them.

On a charter motorboat ride to see  Bottlenose dolphins, the skipper gave us the smaller half-size plastic water bottles. But he cautioned that we need to be very careful because at 25 m.p.h. the strong wind on our faces would easily blow the empty water bottles into the ocean — and that could kill a sea turtle. My young grandson asked the Captain how fast the turtles die after eating a plastic bottle. Was the death slow or rapid? The captain said it was a slow death. I wanted to know (but did not ask), if plastic water bottles kill sea turtles, why the heck is he allowed to serve them on a public speedboat on turtle-sensitive Hilton Head Island? Needless to say, we went without the bottled water.

Notwithstanding the apparent confused plastics management message that I observed above, we witnessed an apparent healthy Loggerhead turtle population at Hilton Head. More than five Loggerhead nests were marked off in close proximity to our entrance walkway to the beach. To date, Hilton Head’s 2019 total turtle nest count is already over 200 and climbing, making 2019 the record high year if the trend continues. About 430 nests was the Island’s prior record high. By comparison, Florida, the leading U.S. nesting spot,  has tens of thousands of Loggerhead nests.

Usually the same female turtle lays three or four nests during the summer, and then she takes well-deserved a two- or three-year vacation to recover. Thus our home grown Loggerhead nest at Virginia Beach quite possibly belongs to the same individual who laid a nest at Virginia Beach several years ago. Believe it or not, the Virginia naturalists plan to conduct a DNA test to confirm that the 2019 Virginia Beach Loggerhead is this same individual female. We also might expect a few more nests this year, from this same female.

Loggerhead turtles face a hard knock life. Only one in a thousand hatchlings are estimated to survive to adulthood. Up to 40% of the adult nesting females have apparent shark bite injuries — judging by a distinctive sand pattern left on the beach, one Hilton Head turtle is missing a leg. Many are killed in fishing nets. Many are killed by motorboats. Sea turtles need a quiet, undisturbed beach area, including no bright lights on beach houses after 10 p.m. Therefore, habitat loss is a serious problem. A single raccoon on the beach can reportedly wipe out a vast number of nests. In other countries, the eggs and turtles are eaten by humans, and the turtles are not protected by american-style strict conservation measures.

Just as we were leaving Hilton Head, the TV news reported on a proposed law to ban garden shovels on the beach. The law would “send a message,” the report said, that deep holes in the sand and sand castles left standing are very bad for sea turtles.

I was expecting to hear more about single-use plastic bans. According to one study, at least 50% of Loggerheads have ingested plastics, but the study was not saying the plastics were fatal. I do not question that plastics pollution in the ocean is a problem for the world. I do wonder if those plastics come from America’s cities.    

I departed Hilton Head with the impression that America’s Atlantic shore Loggerhead turtle population is thriving, thanks to to our excellent conservation measures. Of course, Loggerhead populations in other parts of the world are undoubtedly more endangered.

I am left with several moral, practical questions. Are single-use plastics from American towns really seriously hurting the Loggerhead sea turtle population? If not, does it make sense to ban plastics in America to “send a message,” even if we are handling the waste disposal problem well enough ourselves? Is the long-term persistence of mismanaged plastic waste (litter) so bad that many beneficial uses of plastics have to end?

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20 responses to “Saving Atlantic Loggerheads from Plastics

  1. Hey that sounds a lot like our vacation!
    Updated stats Hilton Head is now over 350 Loggerhead nests this year and should smash the old record of 411 nests on the island.

  2. For several years, I have requested paper bags at our local Food Lion, rather than plastic bags. First of all, I hate handling groceries bagged in plastic. The plastic bags do not hold very many items, thus requiring a lot of bags, and they are formless, often spilling their contents in the car. Second, I worry about the proliferation of plastic in our landfills and environment, including the ocean. At Whole Foods, where we also shop, I don’t have a choice; they use only paper bags.

    My mindset has been upended lately. I have read and heard reports of studies that show that plastic bags have a smaller “environmental footprint” than paper bags! So, my conclusion is that plastic bags are better environmentally as long as they are disposed of properly. Fortunately, Food Lion, Whole Foods, Lowes, and other establishments have collection cans for recycling plastic bags. A nice side effect of recycling plastic bags is that it helps the Virginia economy. The largest user of recyclable plastic film is Trex, a Winchester-based company that makes porch decking boards. I have cut down on the use of both paper and plastic grocery bags by using large, reusable, insulated carrying bags. They are sort of a pain to store under the cart when shopping, but they are easy to carry and can hold a lot more grocery items in one bag and you don’t have to worry about them ripping and stuff falling all over the place. (We also use them for packing things on trips.)

    • Yes our grandkids are collecting the plastic bags because Trex will take them and make a bench for the school or whatever. At the moment that’s where our home bags are going.

      Generically the “solution” is the so-called waste minimization hierarchy is:
      (1) Reduce
      (2) Reuse/Recycle
      (3) Treatment
      (4) Disposal of remaining residual

      In the case of public trash and plastics, “Treatment” generally denotes incineration. In Fairfax Co. and many places, we do follow the above hierarchy, which as an engineer and steward of the evironment, I like that approach if done properly.

      The conflict I see is enviro groups want to vilify and ban the treatment/incineration step feeling that is unacceptable for American society due to risk of unseen air pollution. They want to go with Landfills instead, but then the enviro’s cannot tolerate the thought of plastics sitting in a landfill, becuase they degrade slowly. But I got bad news, hot dogs degrade slowly in a landfill too, and make methane in the process

      So those enviros have a dfferent religion than I do, on mostly everything it seems.

      • Hot dogs in the landfill? That’s sacrilegious!

        • Hot dogs and many such processed “meats” are chock full of chemicals to make them last longer. And yes, a hot dog in your fridge will last far, far longer than you’d want to eat it! We’re also told that these processed meats with uber chemicals in them – actually have interesting effects once they get into our own guts!

        • I know all that. That is the reason I have cut way back on hot dogs and processed meats. But, they taste so good.

  3. I think Kroger gives me back a nickel when I bring in my own re-usable bags. When I do get paper bags, they end up back in recycling filled with old newspapers or cardboard.

    Yes, when the aliens come to explore this dead planet, the piles of plastic and other waste will be their first clue.

  4. I think when we categorize others who care about the environment as all “extreme enviros” – we just are choosing to make the issue divisive instead of accepting the reality that there are a wide variety of people and views and while some ARE extreme – the goal is to find the middle where we all can come together on at least some things rather than just create divisions.

    For every extreme wacko on the left there are their counterparts on the right who don’t give a rats behind about the environment and in fact – argue that we harm our economy by taking taxes from people and spending it on environmental purposes – that money is better kept in the private economy and not frittered away on green weenie foolishness.

    Though I have some agreement with Jim on the specifics of what is or is not, should be or should not and that more than a few seem to talk about “protecting” – at the same time they are “using” that evil plastic.

    But this all goes back to whether this is a job for government and taxes or the private sector where the “market” will decide what is more valuable – turtles or plastics for people.

    I would think that for folks who consider themselves Conservatives/Libertarians – I’d like to hear whether they actually do support taking our taxes and paying scientists to study turtles lives and migrations and how plastics harm them and then advocate for policies to reduce plastic (or mandate plastic that deteriorates over time (horrors MORE job killing regulations!).

    These issues are complex and not easy to deal with and sometimes I think it leads to some folks just wanting to blame it all on “extremists” and refuse to take any personal ownership in the “problem” at all because then they might actually have to “support” some level of government and taxes involvement and gawd forbid that!

    So how about it? Should the govt be taking tax money from you to spend on mere turtles and enact job killing regulations to protect mere turtles?

    If you support taxes and regulation, does that make you an “extremist” enviro?

    • Larry as an engineer, I am focus on what is the problem? Are (turtles) being killed? Is that a signifcant, real problem? or is it perceived problem? If real, let’s work to fix the problem, assuming there’s a fix.

      You are saying you support taxes and regulation, but the question is, blindly so? To solve a real problem, or to solve a preceived problem, or send a political message?

    • Larry as an engineer, I am focus on what is the problem? Are (turtles) being killed? Is that a signifcant, real problem? or is it perceived problem? If real, let’s work to fix the problem, assuming there’s a fix.

      You are saying you support taxes and regulation, but the question is, blindly so? To solve a real problem, or to solve a preceived problem, or send a political message?

      PS- We know your tendency is to say all regs are good and there was never a bad one. The more strict the regs, the more USA has thrived. If we could just full out mandate zero pollution, we’d all be rich (making up for the tax thing I guess).

      • Tbill – no, it’s an honest question. Do you want Govt using tax dollars to study and analyze turtles and then to decide what to spend money on and regulate?

        Do you think govt should do that?

        • Larry- I am not sure I understand, but let me say when I was a young engineer in industry, we had millions of chemists/engineers in industry and one or two as regulators/eco-researchers/members of eco-non-profits. Now seems to me the vast majority of chemists/engineers are working for gov’t, non-profits, enviro-groups, climate change research, etc.. and very few in US industry due to globalization, downsizing, outsourcing, need to pay stock holders etc. So now there are so many gov’t or quasi-gov’t eco-groups or universities that is where the resources are in terms of people, taxes and donated money.

  5. Visited my cousin and her husband in a Boston suburb in May while I was attending my college reunion. Their town has banned plastic bags.

  6. Greetings from Juneau, Alaska!

    I love plastic bags. We use them for cat poop and cat litter — a form of recycling, I suppose. When Kroger stops using them, I guess we’ll have to start buying plastic poop bags.

  7. TBill, when you say you are focused on whether the problem is real versus perceived, I think back to your comment that “enviro groups want to vilify and ban the treatment/incineration step feeling that is unacceptable for American society due to risk of unseen air pollution.” As a contributor once upon a time to the construction of the Montgomery County waste to energy generating unit, I too feel the objection/vilification from ‘enviro groups’ on that subject is a choice to worry about perceived possible harm from the air over actual, demonstrable harm from the landfill — yet the rabid ones simply won’t listen to reason or consider the tradeoffs, or say dismissive things like “the landfill will be in another state so that’s not my problem.” How can we discuss things like environmental impact without resorting to reasoned argument? As for Jim’s comment that Hilton Head might ban sand castles for the sake of the potential harm to nesting turtles — wow, Jim. Let’s just ban habitation and other human presence within a half mile of the beachfront and be done with it!

  8. re: banning humans from non-human habitat. We do that a LOT right now for a wide variety of critters!

    Right now, this very minute – VDOT is unable to start digging piers in the Rappahannock for a new I-95 bridge because fish
    are still migrating upstream and reproducing. DCR will tell VDOT when they can begin!

    But back to the bigger question – is it the job of the govt to figure out what to do with plastics that are getting into the environment and hurting critters?

    serious question.

    After all – any money collected in taxes for that purpose has an “opportunity cost” to it – a tradeoff between something that may have “value” (less killed critters) versus a loss of resources to the private sector economy which would, in theory, use it better and more productively.

    This is a no-brainer in a lot of other countries, especially 3rd world countries and even tourist meccas like Bali – it’s NOT the job of government at all and the private sector also has no interest in it at all and the result is plastic refuse all over the place including the ocean – where it is documented that critters of many species – die from the plastic.

    So if someone says that in the US it IS a proper role for govt to tax us to pay scientists to study the problem and potentially institute bans and regulations (also paid for with taxes) – is that environmental extremism?

    • Larry- When I hear a town has banned straws or bags, I ask why? And the answer is usually not any specfic issue, but to protest plastics and to send a message. Bottom line is local gov’t can do whatever it wants for whatever political or real reason.

      To me the Liberal position is as follows: Combustion (eg; incineration) causes highly toxic fumes that kill people not to mention intolerable contribution to climate change CO2. Since mass murder is not an option, that leaves Landfills, and everything in a landfill degrades harmlessly and quickly to soil except plastics, so therefore, we cannot clog the landfills up with plastics. Therefore plastics must be banned.

      But that above is all hyper nonsense logic, that is screwing up the public perception of what needs to be done (recycling/incneration etc).

      I think many would agree plastics litter is problem in America, and some effort to reduce and clean up is warranted. Since we have a comprehensive waste system, I am not sure if America’s problem is actually significantly harmful or just a cosmetic issue, in any case it is ugly.

      Overseas in the 3rd world, we have a bona fide serious issue with people just throwing their trash in rivers heading to the oceans. And who knows what else is getting thrown in those rivers (actually we can probably guess what else and it isn’t pretty).

  9. Update-
    As of today, Hilton Head has hit 400 turtle nests, with I think October still as the end of the nesting season. So it looks like Hilton Head will go way over their prior record of 411 Loggerhead nests.

    The Green Sea Turtle is even more endangered, and I believe Florida is seeing 80-fold increase in those nests into the tens of thousdands of nests, spiking every other year, since the turtles need a break after laying eggs. I assume this is a good thing.

  10. NPR has a new podcast series on trash and recycling (fantastic for me, some of the history I was indirectly involved back my NJ days).

    https://www.npr.org/2019/07/12/741283641/episode-926-so-should-we-recycle

    In this recycling podcast, the researcher that NPR has on the program comes to some of the same conslusions that I infer above. He feels Europe is doing, and by extension USA needs to consider, incineration for unrecycled plastics. The researcher calls it “Incineration 2.0” which denotes a cleaner form of incineration that Europe is doing. He also mentions the problem in the USA is “demonization” of plastics. He admitted there is some push-back on his ideas, which the NPR hosts were skeptics, but this researcher guy seemed to be the standard NPR liberal contributor, so they were semi appreciative that there might be some merit to his comments.

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