Endangered animals get entangled in plastics that riddle US oceans – study
Endangered marine mammals and sea turtles are routinely being entangled in or are swallowing pieces of plastic that now riddle the oceans off US coastlines, a new report has found.
The plastic-induced toll stretches from Florida, where a manatee was found dead with a stomach filled with plastic bags and straws, to Virginia where a sei whale died after swallowing a DVD case causing stomach lacerations, to California, where a juvenile elephant seal was discovered with a packing strap wrapped around its neck. In South Carolina, a loggerhead sea turtle defecated out almost 60 pieces of plastic while being rehabilitated.
In total there is evidence of more than 1,800 marine animals from 40 species suffering from contact with plastics over the past decade, according to the first formal tally drawn from government and NGO data. Some examples of this phenomenon become well known – such as the whale that washed up with 40kg of plastic in its stomach last year – but the true toll is certainly far higher, with most entanglements unseen by humans.
“We may never know the true number but the details we do have are heartbreaking,” said Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, the conservation organization that collated the report. “The plastic is everywhere, even within deep-diving animals that you rarely see, and it is getting worse.”
Animals can inadvertently swallow floating pieces of plastic while feeding or may even mistake the pieces for food. The Oceana report found that plastic bags, balloons, recreational fishing line, plastic sheeting and food wrappers were the most commonly ingested items, causing internal injuries or hampering the ability of the animals to feed.
Other pieces of plastic can become wrapped around necks, fins or flippers, causing deep injuries or hampering movement. In Hawaii, a monk seal was found with a plastic water bottle stuck on its snout while in California a food wrapper was discovered lodged in the esophagus of a dolphin. This blight could prove a material threat to the viability of some species, with the Oceana report finding that 88% of creatures recorded with plastic on or in them are from species listed as threatened or endangered by the US.
Around 11m tonnes of plastic flow into the oceans a year, with this amount set to nearly triple to 29m tonnes a year by 2040 – the equivalent of 50kg for each meter of coastline in the world – if current trends continue. The plastic often breaks down into tiny pieces and is now ubiquitous in our oceans, found from the deepest reaches of the marine world to even sea ice in the Arctic.
The Trump administration has blamed countries such as China and Vietnam for pumping large amounts of plastic into the seas but research has suggested the US is the planet’s third largest contributor to marine plastic pollution. United Nations talks were recently held on a new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution but without any signal of support from the US or UK, two of the largest per-capita waste producers in the world.
Some jurisdictions within the US have moved to phase out plastic straws or bags – New York is now finally enforcing a ban on plastic bags after a pandemic-related delay – but advocates are hoping to push Joe Biden’s incoming administration to more aggressive national action.
“We need to quit blaming other countries and pass laws limiting the use of single-use plastics,” said Warner. “I know Biden is very concerned about climate change and plastic is a huge supplier of greenhouse gases. I’m hoping the US will finally come to the party and do something about this.”