After the death of a leatherback turtle at Ċirkewwa harbour in northern Malta, there have been renewed calls to protect this highly important species.
This isn’t the first time that a leatherback turtle has died due to plastic pollution and if things stay the same then it won’t be the last.
What are leatherback turtles?
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest species of turtle on the planet and they have a global range meaning that you can find them across the world. That being said these turtles are generally seen in the western Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans.
This is why there was such an element of surprise over the dead leatherback that was retrieved from Ċirkewwa harbour. They haven’t been seen in the region for decades however they have been a protected species in Malta since 1992.
The Leatherback Sea Turtle population is in decline and has been for some time now. This means that many areas – the Mediterranean Sea included – are having problems with jellyfish as this is the main food source.
The Jellyfish problem and why it matters
Jellyfish numbers are rising across the world and it is presenting a major problem for marine life and the ecosystem in general.
Not only are humans more at risk of being stung but jellyfish also have a destructive impact on other sea life as well. For example, jellyfish feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton and their presence leads to significant drops in these populations. They also eat the larvae of other fish which has negative impacts on population, fishing and aqua tourism.
Leatherback Sea turtles are crucial in ensuring that the numbers of jellyfish are kept low and their negative impact on the environment is kept to a minimum. A leatherback can eat twice its bodyweight in jellyfish every day so if we use conservative estimates and say that an adult male leatherback weighs 600 pounds and lives for 30 years then this amounts to 5.9 million kg of jellyfish eaten over their lifetime. That’s over 1 million jellyfish over 30 years from one Leatherback and that is just a conservative estimate as these turtles can live much longer!
Plastic pollution in the Mediterranean
The real problem for Leatherback Sea Turtles is plastic pollution.
Plastic debris and other pollutants in the oceans are causing real issues for these sea turtles and it is one of the main reasons why there has been a decline in the number of leatherbacks across the world. Plastic bags, containers and other plastic waste look similar to jellyfish hence why so many leatherbacks are eating plastic and this causes major internal damage.
All is not lost for sea turtles as there 100 Loggerhead turtles hatched in Gneja Bay and this should go a long way to boost the population numbers of one type of sea turtles at least.
As for Leatherhead turtles more awareness has to be raised around the disposal of plastic products otherwise their numbers will dwindle even further and the amount of jellyfish will rise even more which will cause substantial problems to the ecosystem across the globe.