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In January and February of 2016, a total of 13 young sperm whales washed up on the beach near the town of Tönning in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. An autopsy revealed that the whales had all died of heart failure. The researchers believe that the young bulls, all between 10-15 years old, may have entered the North Sea by mistake. Since the sea floor here is too shallow for these deep sea dwellers, it caused the whales to become disoriented and perish.
While that is certainly sad, what is worse is the amount of plastic the scientists discovered inside the mammals’ stomachs. Among the man-made trash mistakenly ingested by the young whales was the remains of a 13-meter long and 1.2-meter wide safety net used for shrimp fishing. The scientists also found a 70-centimeter-long plastic cover from a car engine and some sharp-edged pieces from a plastic bucket.
Though the plastic was not responsible for the death of the sperm whales, the discovery is a harsh reminder of the harmful consequences of our plastic ridden society. Ursula Siebert, head of the Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, whose team examined the sperm whales, says, "If the whales had survived, the garbage in their guts might have caused digestive problems down the line." Also, as the whales eat more trash, it may give them the false comfort of being full and reduce their desire to feed, resulting in malnutrition.
Sperm whales are not the only marine animals hurt by the increasing amount of plastic in our oceans. Sea turtles also mistake the brightly colored trash for food. As pieces of the man-made material get stuck in the animal's digestive tract, they result in a build-up of gas causing what scientists refer to as "floater syndrome." As the name indicates, it means that the turtles can no longer dive deep into the ocean to seek food. Instead, they just float on the surface of the water and if not rescued in time, starve to death.
According to researchers from the University of Queensland, in the past six to seven years, the number of marine life species ingesting or getting entangled in plastic has increased almost three-fold, from 250 to 700. The scientists warn that even the tiny plankton, the food source for many marine animals, is consuming the trash.
Dr. Qamar Schuyler from the UQ School of Biological Sciences says: “Unfortunately, what this means is that if the bottom of the food chain is eating plastic, it bio-accumulates up the food chain, and there have been several studies that have looked at food fish – fish that we go out, and purchase – and even these fish have plastics in their intestines.”
If the possibility of consuming seafood filled with plastic does not serve a wake-up call to change our careless habits, we don't know what will!
Resources: Telegraph.co.uk, Greenpeace.org, Dailymail.co.uk