The Plastic Plague: How Our Convenience Kills Aquatic Life
Plastics have become a very convenient use for our everyday lives, whether it's bags, cups, plates, etc. But our convenience may lead to the fatal outcome for lots of aquatic animals who mistakenly consume plastic items in their natural habitat. The United Nations estimated that 800 species all over the world become affected by marine debris, among which 80% is plastic. Approximately up to 13 million metric tons of plastics end up in the waters every year, and this impacts marine life. For example, in 2010, the gray whale died near Seattle after eating more than 20 plastic bags, a golf ball, and other things in his stomach. Other examples include fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals that consume plastic, which leads to suffocation, starvation, and drowning.
Aquatic animals affected
The research indicated that half of the sea turtle population consumes plastic thinking that they have eaten enough, but that leads to their starvation. It was studied that only 14 plastic pieces are enough for sea turtles to be at risk of death, and this is threatening mostly for young species because they are not capable of being as selective as elder species.
Plastic waste also in a lot of ways kills up to a million seabirds every year. Seabirds, like sea turtles, eat plastic items, which makes them think that they are full enough that they do not need food. A lot of seabirds have been found dead and had their stomachs full of plastic waste. It was estimated that 60% of seabirds that ate plastic items can raise to 99% by 2050.
Sea lions are another example of marine animals affected by plastic waste. While other aquatic animals may consume plastic items by mistake, sea lions become entangled in plastics. The most common items that threaten sea lions are fishing lines, plastic packing bands, and rubber bands. A study demonstrated that Eastern Steller sea lions that are threatened by extinction are impacted mostly by plastic packing bands and rubber bands that end up around their necks. Their population has already declined by 80% 40 years ago, but with the plastic waste, they become even more on the edge of extinction because of plastics that can cause severe infection or death.
Fish are too certainly affected by plastic waste, particularly by microplastics. Despite fish being threatened by microplastic waste, they are also full of toxic materials when caught and sold for food. It was estimated that fish products contain ingested plastic microfibers, among which are species of brown trout, cisco, and perch.
The "plague" for wild animals
Flexible packaging and other plastic items are killing aquatic animals, including marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, sea lions everywhere around the world. The fishing industry does not only affect the population of aquatic animals by this activity but also threatens aquatic life by nets and fishing lines.
According to Dr. Lauren Roman, “Death from eating any of these items is not a quick one and it is not likely to be painless. It’s a pretty awful way to die.”
The review that was published in the journal Conservation Letters provided an analysis of 655 scientific articles about plastic waste, and it was found that there were deaths of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea turtles, and sea birds in all continents around the world. The journal Science estimated that “in 2016 between 19 million and 23 million tonnes of plastic found its way into both rivers and oceans.”
According to another research, “To reduce megafauna mortality, we recommend policymakers focus on reduction through regulation, prohibition, and replacement of high-mortality-risk large items, such as plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic sheets, fishing rope, nets, tackle, and balloons. Reducing the abundance of these items in the environment would directly reduce mortality of marine megafauna through lesser megafauna - debris encounters and interactions.”
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Sea turtles: All seven species of endangered sea turtles ingest or are entangled by plastic. More than 50% of sea turtles eat plastic (alternate source). 50-80% of all dead sea turtles found have plastic inside them.
Alvi, a green sea turtle stranded on the South African coast, was saved by the Aquarium team after having a whole plastic bag pulled out of its throat.
A tiny stranded loggerhead turtle hatchling, less than a few weeks old, pooped out an entire party balloon.
The Two Oceans Aquarium's green sea turtle Bob is one of the few sea turtles lucky enough to survive eating plastic - he was rescued after being stranded.
A Thai veterinarian saved an endangered turtle by removing a 30cm plastic bag from its digestive system.
Marine mammals: 54% of all whales, dolphins, and seals are impacted by plastic. NOAA estimates that 100 000 marine mammals are killed by plastic each year.
A 2019 study of dolphins, whales, and seals in waters of the UK found that 100% of dead animals on their coast had ingested plastic. In 2018, in Thailand, a pilot whale was killed by 80 plastic shopping bags.
Vulnerable sperm whales are the species most commonly found killed by plastic debris. A pregnant sperm whale washed up on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea with 20kg of plastic in its stomach. Upon autopsy, it was found that the whale had still managed to eat squid, but was unable to absorb the nutrients due to the plastic waste and slowly starved. In November 2018, a sperm whale died in Indonesia after eating 155 cups, four plastic bottles, 25 single-use bags, and two flip-flops.
In 2018, a juvenile sperm whale was found on the coast of Spain with 30kg of plastic in its gut. Four stranded sperm whales were stranded on the German coast, with stomach contents including car parts, a 13-meter long net, and a bucket.
In 2013 one was found dead in the Netherlands after eating 17kg of plastic. Another was found in California in 2008 with more than 200kg of fishing gear and plastic bags in its stomach.
In 2006, a sperm whale was found dead in Greece with 100 plastic shopping bags in its stomach. One of the first whales documented to have been killed by plastic was a sperm whale in France that ingested 30 meters of plastic sheeting in 1989.
In March 2019, a Cuvier's beak whale was found vomiting blood in the waters of the Philippines, dying shortly afterward. Upon autopsy, it was found that almost 40kg of rice sacks, chip packets, and balls of fishing gear had built-up in its stomach, causing a buildup of stomach acid which dissolved the walls of the whale's stomach and caused it to bleed to death internally.
A rare goose-beaked whale had to euthanized in Norway in 2017 after ingesting 30 plastic shopping bags. In 2011, a Gervais' beaked whale was found with 17kg of plastic in its stomach in Puerto Rico. A Bryde's whale was killed by a nylon rope, a plastic bag, and a bottle cap in Malaysia in 2008. Another was found dead in Australia in 2000 with a stomach filled with 6m2 of plastic bags. In 2006, a Cuvier's beaked whale in the Cook Islands was killed by a single plastic shopping bag.
In France, a Minke whale was killed by just 800g of plastic bags in 2002.
Fish: A study conducted by the University of Exeter concluded that the number of sharks and rays entangled by plastic debris is largely underestimated.
114 species of marine fish are known to regularly be entangled in or ingest plastic. At least a million fish are killed this way each year.
A recent study found that 75% of all fish in the Nile River contained microplastic.
Birds: Two-thirds of all seabird species are affected, representing 56% of all seabird species. Millions of birds are killed each year. 98% of albatrosses have ingested plastic, and 40% of their chicks died when they are fed this by their parents.
Entangled birds are a problem even in Cape Town - imagine how many of these tiny lives are lost that we don't know about.
Swans at popular ponds in the UK are being harmed by discarded fishing gear.
Coral: Several coral species have been observed starving as their digestive systems have been blocked by microplastic or their photosynthetic zooxanthellae were killed by being shaded by plastic.
After the hit of the pandemic in December 2019, the waste from plastic use increased because of the use of masks and gloves. Some conservationists found that the consequences of coronavirus led to a lot of disposable masks, latex gloves, and sanitizer bottles floating in the ocean. “In the years leading up to the pandemic, environmentalists had warned of the threat posed to oceans and marine life by skyrocketing plastic pollution. As much as 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into oceans each year, according to a 2018 estimate by UN Environment. The Mediterranean sees 570,000 tonnes of plastic flow into it annually – an amount the WWF has described as equal to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles every minute into the sea.”
The figures, unfortunately, are growing significantly because of all countries struggling with the pandemic. According to the statement by Gary Stokes from OceansAsia, “On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70 [masks]. One week later, another 30 masks had washed up. And that’s on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”
As much as the oceans are already full of plastics and the planet is choking by this kind of pollution, COVID-19 has certainly contributed much more waste to the waters with the use of masks, gloves, and, of course, plastic utensils and packages from the restaurants that only provided take-outs. Could this be handled better? Certainly. Because we share this planet with other creatures and because other living beings, i.e. animals, depend on us, it is crucial to have a balanced approach of our activities towards animals and sustainable use of any items that could lead to the destruction of the ecosystem and the reduction of the population of certain animals.
Plastics do not kill or infect just aquatic animals but also land mammals. While the use of plastics cannot be completely banned, it can certainly be reduced to save animals and the environment. For example, Abu Dhabi, after a massive death of camels due to plastic consumption, decided to plan to ban plastic bags, beverage cups and lids, plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers, and food containers. And there are other ways how each of us can help reduce plastic waste that end up in the oceans or on land.
Reduce the use of single-use plastic items, such as plastic bags, water bottles, straws, containers, utensils, etc. These can be replaced by the same but reusable items (grocery bags, bottles/coffee cups).
If you are just taking a stroll and see plastic bottles or other plastic items, take them and you will contribute to saving our animals and the environment. You can also organize a cleanup in your local area, especially on the beach.
Support local or regional bans or limited use on the use of plastics by signing a petition or in any other ways participating/contributing to such ban.
Share information on your social media pages about the threats of plastic waste to our planet. You can also check out documentaries on plastic waste, such as “A Plastic Ocean,” “Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic,” “Bag It,” “Addicted to Plastic,” or “Garbage Island.”
There are a lot of organizations that work on the issue of plastic pollution. Express your interest, donate, or volunteer with these organizations to help save millions of lives and the only place to live.