Mike James, a biologist with Dalhousie University, said the most widely distributed reptiles on Earth are choking or starving to death after ingesting plastic garbage.
A review of 371 post-mortem examinations since 1968 reveals that over one third of the turtles had ingested plastic. The turtles appear to be mistaking bags and other plastics for jellyfish, the report said.
The leatherbacks are unable to regurgitate the plastic because of thousands of spines lining the throat and esophagus. The plastic can lead to obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in digestive problems or even starvation. It has also been shown to hurt reproduction.
"Plastics ingestion doesn't always cause death, but there are clearly health risks to the turtles," James said in a release.
The findings are published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.