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Plastics plague our oceans, killing marine mammals

A humpback whale was spotted off San Diego’s coast on Valentine’s Day 2020, entangled in a green plastic fishing net. It struggled to migrate up California’s coast, leaping repeatedly to desperately try to rid itself of the net. But rescuers were unable to safely get close enough to try to cut the net off.

Wildlife photographer Dominic Biagini, the first to sight the breaching whale, shared his pictures: thick green cords drawn tightly across skin; water agitated into a white froth. Biagini wrote, “I don’t have the words to describe the heartbreak.”

The whale disappeared.

The whale’s tortuous journey created a brief media buzz, and its final fate is unknown. But it most likely joined the tens of thousands of whales and other marine mammals killed by plastic pollution and plastic fishing gear every year, sinking dead to the bottom of the ocean.

The plague of plastic in our oceans is steadily worsening, taking an increasingly deadly toll on whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals, not to mention other marine life.

A new report we at the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project just released chronicles that carnage, surveys the science on this growing epidemic, identifies the culprits in the plastic and fishing industries, and calls for specific policy solutions in plastic hot spots around the world.

Plastics plague our oceans, and marine mammals pay the price. They get strangled by plastic waste, filled with toxic microplastics and entangled in plastic fishing gear.

We’ve found:

  • Many marine mammals — including the North Atlantic right whale, Hawaiian monk seal, Gulf of California vaquita, the Irrawaddy dolphin and many river dolphin species — are rapidly spiraling toward extinction. We must immediately limit plastic pollution and plastic fishing gear to help save them.
  • Plastic pervades all our oceans, but microplastics are most highly concentrated in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and offshore urban areas, where they choke out marine mammals and bioaccumulate in seafood that often ends up on people’s dinner plates.
  • Whale entanglements in lobster, crab and other trap-fishing gear have been skyrocketing on the East and West coasts of the United States. It’s time to replace these mazes of entangling lines with new ropeless or pop-up gear.
  • Most fishing gear is made of plastics that harm marine mammals, whether in actively fishing or lost at sea. Gillnets and other plastic fishing gear inadvertently kill tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine mammals every year. Bycatch is a plastics issue and switching to more sustainable fishing gear is the solution.
  • Slowing the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans is crucial. Plastic largely isn’t recyclable so we must stop making so much throwaway plastic that will inevitably end up killing marine life.
  • We must hold responsible industries, including the oil industry, plastics industry and manufacturers of plastic nets and lines, for stopping this plastic pollution flow and cleaning up its mess.

The plastics plague is just our latest assault on marine life. Commercial harpoons pushed many whales and other marine mammals to the brink of extinction, before we banned commercial whaling. Plastic pollution and irresponsible fishing practices threaten to reverse decades of ocean conservation progress and doom many vulnerable marine species.

We simply can’t keep filling our oceans with plastic or waiting for future generations to clean up our messes. The time to act is now.

Dave Phillips is executive director of the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Berkeley.

Mark J. Palmer is a biologist by training and an environmental advocate for 50 years. He is the associate director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project.

Their recent report, “The Plastics Plague: Marine Mammals and Our Oceans in Peril,” is a blueprint for reform.

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