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Plastic: A deadly meal for marine mammals

7 Feb 2014

Everyone has heard of plastic being bad for marine life, but how bad is it? Since plastic is lightweight, strong, durable and buoyant, if not properly discarded, it can enter waterways and eventually the marine environment, where it stays for a long time and becomes a accidental snack for aquatic species.


It is estimated that every year 20 million tons of plastic litter enters the ocean, and approximately 100,000 marine mammal individuals are affected by the ingestion of large pieces of plastic. However, unknown number of cases remain undiscovered as many of these animals perish in the open ocean. The most vulnerable marine biota are whales, dolphins and porpoises. Sperm whales are especially prone since their feeding mechanism resembles a vacuum cleaner: they suck the food in their mouth. And unfortunately, sperm whales cannot distinguish plastic bags from one of their favourite diet – squids. Over the years a number of plastic pollution related whale deaths have been reported, and two of the most media-highlighted occurred in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2012, a sperm whale was found washed up with more than 100 pieces plastic bags in its stomach at Mykonos Island in Greece; and in 2013, a sperm whale was also found with 17kg of plastic waste in its gut in Spain. In both cases, the name of the plastic bag suppliers could still be read after necropsy! 


Sadly, the removal of plastic debris from the ocean has no economic incentive and it is nearly impossible. The only way to reduce or halt plastic entering the waterways is stopping it at its source. Several countries (e.g. Germany, South Africa, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Sweden), cities (e.g. San Francisco, Los Angeles) and a number of US states (e.g. Hawaii, New York, Washington) already have banned plastic bags or introduced fees. It is planned that within the whole European Union plastic bag bans or mandatory charges will be introduced by 2017.


Nevertheless, plastic debris already present in the ocean will continue to be a deadly meal for a large number of marine mammal species. 


Article by Whalefish contributor Wanda Bodnar 

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