It’s not new information that our oceans are full of garbage. While there are no current figures of exactly how much garbage is in there, the National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1975 that around 14 billion pounds of garbage are added each year. Aside from just looking disgusting, all of this garbage poses a serious threat to wildlife who either confuse it as food or ingest it accidentally.
Earlier this year, a study was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin about the impacts of plastics entering whales’ diets. As plastic cannot be digested, it sits in the stomach without being able to go anywhere. Eventually, the digestive tract becomes blocked. Not only is the whale unable to clear this blockage, but it is also unable to eat any real food as well. Thus, the researchers found that starvation and gastric rupture ultimately kill the whale.
In March a 10 meter (32.8 feet) sperm whale was found dead on the coast of Spain. After an autopsy, it was discovered that the whale’s stomach had over 17 kilograms (37 pounds) of greenhouse supplies (including sheeting, rope, and flower pots) that had been discarded into the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Netherlands in July a 13.5 meter (44.3 feet) long sperm whale was discovered beached, but still clinging to life. Unsuccessful attempts were made to rescue it. Plastic was also found in its stomach, according to initial reports from conservation officials.
The whale discovered in the Netherlands is only the fifth whale confirmed to have died from ingesting plastic. This might be because some are able to process it better than others, or there could be more that never made it to shore and therefore couldn’t be reliably counted. However, ocean garbage has been shown to kill many other animals in very similar ways.
A 2012 study showed that turtles do not eat ocean garbage indiscriminately and prefer buoyant plastics over other forms of ocean litter, including balloons and translucent materials that could resemble jellyfish. Much of this gets lodged in the turtle’s throat, causing it to die from suffocation.
Recently, the impact of plastic on albatross has been receiving a great deal of attention. There is an island, 2000 miles away from any continent near, known as the Midway Atoll. This is home to nearly three million birds, most of which are albatross. The birds on this island take to the sea to find food. Over 12% of the time, however, they find plastic instead, due to its proximity to the Great Pacific garbage patch.
Aside from just eating the garbage, marine debris puts animals at risk through entanglement from old fishing lines and abandoned nets. Animals are in danger from being caught on things like 6-pack rings, which can cut off circulation or airways as the animal grows.
It is hard to estimate exactly how many animals are affected by plastic in the oceans each year, though some have put the number as high as 100,000. While some groups are experimenting with large-scale devices to reduce the amount of marine debris, there currently isn’t anything in place. Until this desperately-needed solution comes, it is on all of us to reduce the amount of litter generated so that it does not end up in the mouths or around the necks of ocean animals.