Pollution takes many forms and threatens sea turtles in insidious ways. Turtles looking for food mistakenly ingest plastic debris. Agricultural runoff and chemical contaminants in coastal waters make turtles more susceptible to disease. Light and noise pollution drive turtles away from critical foraging and nesting habitats.

© Brian Skerry | BrianSkerry.com

In the ocean currents where sea turtles search for food, degraded plastic particles are now more prevalent than zooplankton. Sea turtles often swallow plastic debris, which can block digestive tracts and cause them to starve to death. Leatherbacks confuse plastic shopping bags for jellyfish, a deadly mistake. Turtles can also become entangled in ghost nets and lines, fishing gear lost or discarded in the ocean by fishermen.

F. Paladino 2009

C. Díaz-Chuquisengo 2013

Oil spills and chemical contamination of waterways can cause respiratory inflammation, gastrointestinal ulceration, organ damage and reproductive failure in sea turtles. 

Turtles exposed to high levels of nitrogen from agricultural runoff and discharged sewage suffer from increased rates of fibropapillomatosis, a condition characterized by development of internal and external tumors that can ultimately lead to death. 

Bacterial contamination of sand at nesting beaches prevents eggs from developing and can infect adult turtles.

© Britt Basel | BrittBaselphoto.com

Noise and light pollution also negatively impact sea turtles. Unfiltered lights in coastal areas disorient hatchlings and deter adult turtles from nesting. Persistent and abrupt low-frequency noise, including seismic tests for energy exploration, disturbs turtles and may even damage their hearing.