The alarming trend of beached whales filled with plastic, explained
The sperm whale that just washed ashore in Italy is just the tip of the iceberg.
This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.
In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.
“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”
In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.
But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.
To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.
There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean
The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.
Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.
Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.