Seychelles Aldabra atoll tortoises are being affected by eating plastic debris. One tortoise was found with half a flip-flop in its pile of dung.
A huge plastic clean-up operation is being organized on one of the most important turtle nesting islands in the Indian Ocean.
The isolated Aldabra atoll, 390 miles off the coast of Africa, is strewn with plastic that has been swept long distances by ocean currents.
Around 5,000 endangered green turtles nest on beaches around the coral atoll, an outlying island of the Seychelles and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But the animals are being entangled in nylon fishing ropes, and the hatchlings can struggle to reach the sea because of debris on the sand.
A team from the Seychelles Islands Foundation and Queen’s College, Oxford University will attempt to clear around 50 tons of plastic from the key nesting sites in a month-long expedition.
Sky News will film the operation for its ground-breaking Deep Ocean Live programs to be broadcast in March.
April Burt, a PhD student at Queen’s College, is helping to coordinate the clean-up.
She told Sky News: “It makes it harder for the turtles.
“It can deter them from coming on the beaches which they have been coming all their lives. They then expend more energy when they are trying to flick out big bits of trash from where they want to nest.
“And then when the hatchlings come out they are having to get through all this trash before they even get to the sea.”
Rough calculations suggest there could be 1,000 tons of plastic across Aldabra.
Analysis shows a high proportion by weight is fishing gear, likely from industrial tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean.
But there is also a huge amount of consumer plastic, mostly flip-flops, cigarette lighters and bottles.
The island’s 150,000 giant tortoises are eating the debris. Scientists even found half a flip-flop in a pile of dung.
Jeremy Raguain, a project officer with the Seychelles Islands Foundation, said: “It’s cataclysmically ironic that a place that is so far and so protected still gets affected by this kind of stuff.
“It’s everyday items that we have all used and you can look at the items and ask, ‘how does it end up here, why here?'”
The Oxford team has begun preliminary analysis of ocean currents to try to identify possible sources for the plastic.
Helen Johnson, an oceanographer at Oxford University, said the models have so far gone two years.
“The work we have done so far suggest the plastic is coming from the east coast of Africa,” she said.
“It is being swept off shore, out into the Indian Ocean then south before heading west towards Aldabra.”
A secondary source appears to be India and Sri Lanka, 2,700 miles away.
As the scientists finesse the models and run them back for longer periods, it’s possible that they could identify plastic being swept across the width of the Indian Ocean from Indonesia, one of the biggest sources of ocean plastic pollution.