Harrison County

How your plastic trash may be killing sea turtles and other marine life

Plastic, trash remain a danger for marine life

Institute of Marine Mammal Studies brings spotlight of the danger of plastic in our waters.
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Institute of Marine Mammal Studies brings spotlight of the danger of plastic in our waters.

Be careful what you do with plastic trash. It can end up affecting the ocean ecosystem and could take the life of a dolphin or sea turtle.

The evidence can be found on our own Coast beaches, where a loggerhead sea turtle carcass recently washed ashore with plastic stuck in its naval cavity.

To help drive home the point, Dr. Debra Moore, attending veterinarian at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, on Thursday wheeled the large turtle on a cart out of the necropsy laboratory. The lab is where Moore determines how marine animals that wash ashore have died.

Moore plucked out a piece of plastic deeply embedded in the turtle’s nasal cavity. The plastic had been there so long it eventually was forced to take the shape of the animal’s nose.

Hundreds of turtles wash up on Coast beaches every year, according to IMMS. Many of those, executive director Moby Solangi said, have died from the effects of plastic debris in their habitat. IMMS, the state’s only marine mammal and sea turtle rehabilitation center, and the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine are now tracking numbers of marine life affected by plastic.

Solangi called the conference on the anniversary of the BP oil spill, and just two days short of Earth Day.

“This happens every day,” he said of plastic damaging marine life. But “it’s one that can be fixed,” he said.

Plastic and the marine ecosystem

It takes a plastic bottle 450 years to break down and a plastic bag 10 to 20 years, according to the U.S. National Park Services, so plastic debris collects in the ocean. In fact, there’s an estimated 268,940 tons of plastic in the Earth’s ocean, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Plastic that enters the water affects the entire marine ecosystem.

Turtles that prey on jellyfish are easily confused by plastic bags in the water. Dolphins also swallow plastic bags and other debris, which can damage their digestive system and obstruct their airway.

The effect of plastic is so widespread, traces of plastic have been detected in the seafood we eat.

When bottles and plastic bags do break down, microscopic organisms called zooplankton eat the microplastics that result. Small fish eat the zooplankton and in turn are eaten by larger fish, which can end up on our dinner plates.

Even oysters can be affected, Moore said.

More than 600 species of marine life are known to suffer directly from plastic pollution, according to IMMS.

What can be done?

There are several ways to keep plastic out of the environment.

“The big thing to remember is to follow the three Rs,” Moore said. “Reduce, reuse and recycle.”

More everyday ways to help out:

▪  Avoid using disposable plastics, as well as personal-care products containing “microbeads.”

▪  Buy food in bulk and bring reusable bags to get groceries home.

▪  Bring your own garment bag to the dry cleaner.

▪  Participate in beach cleanups.

“It is critically important to recognize what is happening in our environment,” Solangi said. “We can do something about this. We created it and we can make a difference.”

Earth Day events

Great American Cleanup

Host: City of Biloxi

Location: Point Cadet Plaza

Time: 8 a.m. to noon Saturday

Activities: Help clean up trash

Earth Day family celebration

Host/Location: Pascagoula River Audubon Center

Time: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $2

Annual Earth Day celebration

Host: City of Gautier

Location: George Martin City Park

Time: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

Activities: Farmers market, free eco-tours, vendors and children’s activities that promote learning about the environment, and local vendors teaching about efficient, money-saving and earth-friendly practices

Earth Day Pier Walk

Organizer: Ken Combs Jr.

Location: Ken Combs Pier, Gulfport

Time: 6 p.m. Saturday

Activities: Benefits Feed My Sheep; attendees encouraged to bring canned goods. Includes ceremony with speakers, free seedlings, bonfire, walk on the pier in memory of loved ones.

Earth Day Planting

Host: Mississippi Renaissance Garden Foundation

Location: Hiller Park, Biloxi

Time: 9-11 a.m. Saturday

Activities: Plants and tools provided. Refreshments, prizes, fun and free seeds to take home. Explore the garden; join Horticulture for Humanity and receive free birdhouse. The new children’s splash pad and playground are now open.

Earth Day March for Science

Organizer: University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park

Location: Harper McCaughan Town Green, Long Beach

Time: 2-7 p.m. Saturday

Activities: March will proceed to USM’s Fleming Education Center auditorium, where speakers and entertainment are planned.