Whales can no longer avoid our plastic waste and are dying from it more frequently

The amount of plastic waste in our oceans in so vast that whales can no longer avoid it and are dying more frequently because of it, resulting in an unfolding disaster that will reverberate across ecosystems and our own lives.

There are currently five major patches of garbage floating in our oceans, the largest containing 80,000 metric tons of plastic in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii.

And the amount of plastics, which is mostly small particles from increasingly accumulating single-use plastics, making it nearly impossible for whales and other marine wildlife to avoid it.

As a result, whales are ingesting more and more plastic and are washing up dead on our shores, including filter-feeder whales like right whales and baleen whales. But other whales also end up with plastic building up in their systems via predation on fish that swallow it as well.

For instance, 75 grey whales have been found dead along the United States west coast this year alone. Not all of them died because of plastic, but it’s a sure bet that many of them did.

As for baleen whales, Lars Bejder of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii explained how plastic kills them.

“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”

So, these plastics just build up in the poor whale’s digestive system until it causes a catastrophic and fatal failure, much like the way plastics kill birds.

Other species such as sperm whales, sharks and dolphins also often mistake larger plastic items such as bags and bottles as prey.

“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said.

And the situation becomes even more dire when you realize that the whales we are finding dead are only a small fraction that are dying from plastic waste ingestion.

“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”

So they die at sea and sink out of sight, then to be eaten by other creatures that ingest the same plastic waste that killed its victim.

Whales and many other species are already vulnerable, such as the right whale population that Congress is now trying to save.

But it could be too little, too late if we do nothing to clean up the oceans and end our use of plastics once and for all. Until then, the impact on ecosystems by the loss of more whales will be massive.

“Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”

Most plastics are unrecyclable and therefore pile up in trash heaps or end up in the ocean where it slowly breaks down into microplastics unless it is swallowed whole first. Even the smallest creatures in the ocean, plankton, ingest it. And that’s how many whale species end up ingesting it. Up and down the food chain is contaminated with plastic waste, which also enters our own bodies and wreaks havoc with our health.

Unless we take definitive and immediate actions, we are going to watch helplessly as our oceans die a slow painful death. And then we will watch the same thing happen to ourselves, and all because we couldn’t be bothered to stop buying or using single-use plastic products and demand change.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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