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Published on : 28th March 2018

How Plastic Pollution Affects Marine Animals

Plastic debris along a coast

People’s incessant use of plastic degrades oceans, making them less suitable habitats for numerous organisms. Furthermore, as these vast bodies of waters become more polluted, food supply becomes scarce. Worst, marine animals of all sizes are getting suffocated and poisoned due plastic pollution.

A study reported that plastic pollution impacts around 700 marine animals. Meanwhile, according to a conservation group, plastics kill an estimated 100 million marine mammals each year.

How Much Plastic Ends Up in the Ocean?

In 2015, the amount of plastic that gets dumped in the ocean was estimated to be over 4.8 million metric tons per year. If this staggering figure shocks you, hold your breath! Scientists said that the actual numbers could be as high as 12.7 million metric tons.

As nations continue to fail in implementing proper plastic disposal policies, the figure is expected to continue go up. In fact, by 2050, the forecast is that the amount of plastic in the ocean is going to weigh more than fish living in it.

Furthermore, with production of plastic exponentially increasing, plastic pollution can get worse. From 2004 to 2015, the amount of plastic created was equivalent to the amount produced since its invention in the 1950s up until 2004. Currently, a million plastic bottles are bought per minute. By 2021, the annual purchase of plastic bottles alone is going to hit 500 billion.

Plastic bottles

What’s Wrong With Plastic?

Plastic is designed to be durable; hence, it does not break down easily. Depending on its type or property and condition, plastic may take years before it disappears. Regular plastic bags last for months, while thick monofilament fishing lines may take 600 years to break down.

Water, oxygen, wind, sunlight are some of the things that help in breaking down plastics. Unfortunately, even with the natural degradation process, they still leave harmful trace particles.

What Are the Effects of Plastic Pollution on Marine Animals?

As plastics move around the ocean, they get grounded and turn into tiny fragments. These microplastic pieces stay on the ocean until an unsuspecting animal mistakes it for food and eats it.

Seabird with plastic packaging

Eating plastics is highly dangerous. It can cause blockages or puncture holes in their digestive system. As this material is not easy to break down, it takes quite a while for the body to digest and excrete them. Sometimes, they do not get digested and remain in the gut! With plastics in their gut, animals may feel full and stop eating. Eventually, with no real food getting in their body, they starve and die.

Research shows that 90% of seabirds like puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars accidentally ingest plastics. A survey of the iconic Bass Rock, where the largest colony of gannets in the world is, showed plastic packaging, bags and fishing gear around eggs, in the surrounding water and even on the bills of the gannets. Similarly, another study found out that 50% of turtles eat plastics.

It is not yet known why these animals are eating plastics. Researchers speculate that it could that they thought these fragments were viable food source. There are also animals like whales that accidentally swallow plastic debris when it feeds. A study showed that 22% of cetaceans like that ingest plastic have an increased probability of dying prematurely.

Gannets at Bass Rock

Even sea animals living at the deepest part of the ocean are ingesting plastics. Scientists say that organisms residing at the Mariana Trench showed traces of plastics in their stomach.

Moreover, plastics contain toxins like phthalates. This toxin mimics hormones and mess up bodily processes. In birds, phthalates cause thinning of egg shells.

These toxins, when ingested by mothers, may also be passed on to their children. In a recent documentary, a whale was captured carrying a dead calf. It is believed that the calf was poisoned by the mother’s milk because of plastic pollution.

Aside from ingesting plastics, marine animals are also getting entangled. The number one culprit here are monofilament fishing line nets left at sea. Plastic bags, ropes and other fishing litter also contribute to this problem. When entangled, these animals have difficulty moving or eating; some even end up drowning.

In 2016, Lulu, a member of the UK’s last resident pod of killer whales, got tangled in fishing rope and died.

In some cases, entanglement may cause abrasions and serious injuries on the animals. It may even lead to loss of limbs.

Minke Whale

How to Protect Marine Animals from Plastic?

Sadly, many do no not realise the impact of their continued patronage of plastic products, especially throwaway plastics. Except for those living in coastal areas, most do not see shores littered with plastic bottles, straws, lids, wrappers, etc.  If it were not for Storm Eleanor, people would not have realised that the Cornish coast, including Newquay Harbour, was filled with plastic trash.

If the obsession with plastic doesn’t stop, more marine animals will suffer. Worst, some species may eventually become extinct. To prevent this from happening, one simple thing needs to happen – people should stop using plastic. Going for eco-friendly alternatives like paper straws can go a long way in terms of minimising the amount of plastic in the oceans and preventing marine animals from dying.

Of course, totally eliminating the use of plastic is not going to be feasible any time soon. This is why, the government should step up their efforts in ensuring that proper plastic disposal measures are in place and implemented in their country.

Meanwhile, both the public and private sector should come together to increase awareness on plastic pollution’s impact on marine animals and the environment as a whole. Education is the key to having a citizenry that is concerned about and proactive in caring for our oceans and marine species.

Plastic debris along the coast hoto by Jason Karn

Plastic bottles photo by Shafiu Hussain

Seabird with plastic packaging photo by Ingrid Taylar

Gannets at Bass Rock photo by Bob the courier

Minke Whale photo by Wade_Lehmann


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