Experts not shocked by plastic-related turtle deaths

It's as sad as it is shocking; a tiny turtle's body that washed up on a Boca Raton shoreline is the latest fatality attributed to plastic pollution.

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton posted a picture on Facebook of the deceased turtle alongside hundreds of pieces of plastic that became lodged in its intestinal tract.

But experts in the Tampa area are saying it's not that surprising.

"I almost hate to say it, but my reaction to this photo is that it's fairly common," said Lindsey Waxman, a veterinarian with the Florida Aquarium.

She said many turtles fall victim to these tiny pieces of plastic.

"It can obstruct their GI tract so they can't pass food along, causing them to be sick," she said. "It can cause cramping, it won't break down. It will decrease them actually eating the foods that have nutrients that are good for them. It'll make them weaker so they can't survive."

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LINK: Sea turtle dies after eating over 100 pieces of plastic, South Florida nature center says

It's not just an issue on Florida's west coast. Just last month, a study showed four billion bits of microplastics are plaguing the waters of Tampa Bay.

Kinsley McEachern led that study. The USF-St. Petersburg graduate student spent 14 months alongside other biologists checking 24 different sampling spots around the bay.

"Plastics have been around since the 1960s when they took off," she said. "but the huge level of production-- I think it's almost 300 million tons per year plastic is produced--is happening right now because of convenience and reliance on having things now fast and quickly," McEachern said.

She said using fewer single-use plastic items is the only way to begin solving this problem. But with sea turtle hatching season ongoing, the public could see more hatchlings succumbing to plastics.

"As they make their way into the ocean for the first time, they're traveling with the ocean currents to large areas of seagrass, and with that, there's a lot of debris," she said. "It's a great place to hide and feed when they're really small but with the seaweed, it also captures a lot of our plastic debris. even the smallest plastic particles get caught there."

They hope as more people learn about these small particles, little changes will add up to big differences. 

"Hopefully it sends the message to people to reduce our plastic use. that every little turtle, you know, we can help," Waxman said.