How does plastic pollution affect whales?

The recent television series ‘Blue Planet 2’ by Sir David Attenborough, shocked the world. In his documentaries, he showed that eight million tonnes of plastic is getting into the world’s oceans and described this as ‘an unfolding catastrophe’ and urged global companies to cut back on the production of plastic immediately and for everyone to reject the use of single plastic items. The good news is that 88% of his viewers have taken immediate action – but in reality, much, much more needs to be done….

Plastic is affecting all marine life from the smallest plankton to the largest whale – both in their marine environment and inside their bodies. Globally, 100,000 marine mammals (whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and porpoises) are dying each year because of plastic pollution and this must stop – right now. 

Whales can be seriously hurt when get entangled in plastic fishing gear such as ropes and nets. Scientists believe that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is discarded each year and of course, the whales can also get entangled in fishing gear that is being used.  Getting tangled can cause injuries to the whale and these can become infected. Worse still, if the whale is badly tangled and unable to reach air to breathe, the whale will drown. Even if none of these happen, the whale can still suffer badly from exhaustion from trying to swim with fishing gear trailing behind. 

As Sir David Attenborough showed, plastic is getting into the food chain.  Whales can ingest plastic in two ways; either by swallowing plastic as they feed and also ingesting prey that has itself fed on plastic. The Blue Ocean Society revealed the gravity of the problem-

 ‘In 2018, a sperm whale stranded in Indonesia and its necropsy revealed that it had ingested over 13 pounds of plastic, including bags and flip-flops. Even the deep-diving species True’s beaked whales have been found with plastic in their stomachs after stranding on the beach in Ireland. Micro-plastics, plastic pieces of 5mm or less, are of particular concern for baleen whales, as these giant creatures can end up ingesting the tiny plastic along with krill or other prey while filter feeding’’.

Sadly, there are many similar stories, including this one publicised by the World Wildlife Fund-

‘A gentle ocean giant who feeds in the deep gets stranded on a Spanish beach and dies.

This is what plastic can do to the world’s largest predator – the sperm whale.

Cause of death? An inflammation of its abdominal tissues caused by the presence of nearly 30 kilograms of indigestible plastic. Among the items recovered in its gut were shopping bags, fishing nets and a jerry can. Sadly, marine mammals around the world are suffering similar fates’’.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also mentions a minke whale that was washed up dead on a French beach and was found to have a massive 800kg of plastic debris in its body. WWF states that 40% of all marine animals are now affected by eating plastic. WWF says that 56% of whales and dolphins eat plastic – mistaking it for food. In a study conducted in the Canary Islands, a total of 462 whales and dolphins were found to have plastic in their system. Micro plastics are particularly dangerous as they can get lodged in a whale’s digestive tract, causing it to alter its feeding which can impact its growth and reproduction. 

It may be hard to imagine why a whale or other marine animal would actually eat plastic, but as WWF explains–

‘A plastic bag ballooned with water can look a lot like squid, or other prey, to the seals and marine mammals that hunt them.

Even species that don’t identify prey by sight aren’t safe. Toothed whales, and many species of dolphin, use a sophisticated sonar-type technique called echolocation to find their prey. Some scientists believe that unnatural objects such as plastic waste confuse this sonar, and are incorrectly interpreted as food’’.

Unfortunately, many whales are also affected by contamination. Plastic is a good surface for persistent organic pollutants (POP) to adhere to. These pollutants find their way into the sea in a variety of ways and then cling to waste plastic which is then ingested by marine species – including whales. This problem is compounded by the fact the whales’ bodies accumulate these pollutants (a process called bioaccumulation) and because of their size, this can be in a large volume. Alarmingly high levels of POPs have been found by scientists in humpback, sperm, pilot and fin whales. Toxins in the whales’ bodies can cause disease and can cause death within days, weeks or years.

The Pelagos is an area stretching between France, Monaco, Italy, and Sardinia and is the largest protected marine area in the Mediterranean. WWF France and other organizations have created a sanctuary and initiated the Cetacés project to learn more about plastic pollution and maritime traffic. The area is rich in marine life with 18 species of cetacean (marine mammals). Since 2016, the project has tagged and regularly taken samples from 200 fin, pilot and sperm whales to check the amount of plastic in their bodies and importantly, the type of plastics. Another important initiative is detailed in- https://www.maritime-

WWF is currently pushing governments and businesses worldwide to develop better waste management systems and to ban single use plastic – with the target of totally eliminating plastic waste by 2030. Changing the world’s attitude to plastic can start at an individual level too, so why not do your bit to help protect our beautiful oceans?

* Recycle everything you can.

* Always use a ‘bag for life’ when you are shopping.

* Take your own cutlery, food containers and reusable cups when getting a takeaway or going on a picnic – never use disposable alternatives.

* Join in beach and community clean-ups near you.

* Tell the shopkeeper/waiter  you don’t need a drinking straw, when buying drinks.