Plastic Bag Pollution Endangering the Leatherback Turtles in the Bay

When we picture the Bay, we usually think about the gorgeous sunset over the waters and the breathtaking views of San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. But there is a lot out there in the Bay that many of us are not aware of. Did you know that there is a large leatherback turtle population that hangs out around the Golden Gate Bridge? There is also an abundant amount of brown sea nettle jellyfish swimming around the shipping lanes near the Golden Gate, so the turtles like to munch on those jellyfish as a viable food source.

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Photo credit: Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles

But these turtles do not live along the California coast their entire lives, so how did they get here? They grow up along the Indonesian coast and then embark on a 6,000 mile journey to the California and Oregon coasts. The leatherback turtles typically migrate from June to November, which is the best time to see them. Once they cross the ocean, they land along the coasts of California and Oregon and take up residence there, from Mendocino to the top of the Oregon shoreline.

The tragedy is that the leather back sea turtles are at risk for going extinct, possibly in two decades or less. According to SF Gate, “a recent study found plastic in the intestinal tracts of 37% of 370 leatherbacks that had been found dead.” The problem is that the turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, so they eat them as a food source. Those plastic bags ended up in the Bay through accumulation of plastic bag litter or blow out of trash cans and garbage trucks. Then  they flow directly into waterways or flow into them through storm drains that connect to the Bay. Since turtles are accustomed to eating jellyfish on a daily basis in the San Francisco Bay, they assume that the plastic bags are edible just like jellyfish. Leatherback turtles are not alone in feeling the effects of plastic pollution in the Bay; in the 2012 report from the United Nations Environmental Programme and the Convention on Biological Diversity, more than half of 663 marine species were documented to have eaten or been entangled in marine debris, representing a 40% increase since 1997.

The good thing is that 65% of the Bay Area lives in a jurisdiction that has banned plastic bags, which is a large, positive step towards preventing the extinction of the leatherback turtles that are living in the Bay. San Jose’s plastic bag ban has directly lead to the decline of plastic bags in local waterways; one year after the ban went into effect, plastic bag trash decreased by 69% in San Jose creeks and 89% in storm drains. To find out whether your city has adopted or is considering a bag ban, check out the latest bag ban map.

As more and more cities ban plastic bags, the likelihood that plastic bags will end up in the Bay significantly decreases, which is good news for the leatherback turtle population that lives near the Golden Gate Bridge. In reality, the Bay is not just an open area. It is fragile and supports a wide range of wildlife, which means that anthropogenic sources of plastic pollution can greatly alter the marine habitat. If we want to keep the leatherback sea turtles in the San Francisco Bay for future generations, we need to kick the plastic bag habit and remember to always use a reusable bag instead. The leatherback turtles will thank us as a result.