A youthful Gray Whale was found recently washed up on a shore in West Seattle. The 37-foot mammal had some unusual contents found in its stomach; more than 20 plastic bags, a pair of sweat pants, hand towels, surgical gloves, pieces of plastic, duct tape, and a golf ball.
This is not the first time human-produced debris has been found in the belly of a whale. Although, according to the Cascadia Research Collective (CRC), “this appeared to be a larger quantity than had ever been found previously.”
50 gallons of mostly undigested content was found in the stomach of the whale. The majority of this was algae, but between 1-2% of the stomach content was garbage. Examination of the whale concluded that its death was most likely not caused by the garbage. Regardless, CRC points out, “It did clearly indicate that the whale had been attempting to feed in industrial waters and therefore exposed to debris and contaminants present on the bottom in these areas.”
Dozens of whales turn up dead on the beaches of the Puget Sound every year. This number is haunting because many of these whales are dying from starvation. The lack of food may be the reason why this particular whale decided to feed in industrial waters around the Seattle area.
Gray whales are filter feeders; which means they suck in sediment in shallow waters and filter the contents to strain out the small organisms that live there. This process used to leave Gray Whales with a few rocks and some sediment left over in their stomach. However now these whales are now trying to filter plastics, rubber, and whatever else is making up the garbage in our oceans.
Industrial waters are not the only human-caused problem aquatic wildlife have to deal with. Mass amounts of trash in our oceans have led to things like the great Pacific Ocean garbage patch. Here, strong ocean currents have collected a large congregation of trash and created, what some would consider to be, a “trash island”. Descriptions of this collection of garbage range from a couple hundred miles across to the size of France.
Ocean pollution leads to a crippling cycle amongst the food chain. When the prey of larger marine species consumes the trash, so do their predators. This non-nutritional snack also kills off large portions of the food source; leading to starvation throughout the ecosystem.
Plastics are potentially the biggest concern when considering the threat of garbage on aquatic life. This is because plastics will never biodegrade. They simply break up into smaller pieces and get filtered through the ecosystem. Sea turtles have been known to mistake plastic bags for their main source of food; jellyfish.
While plastic bags pose a major problem, it’s the plastic resin pellets that seem to be causing the most disruption. These industrial-use granules are typically shipped half-way around the world before they can be melted in commercial-grade plastic. Considering their size, many get discarded along the way and end up washing to the sea with other plastics. Sea birds and fish alike mistake them for food and eat them, sometimes feeding them to their offspring and unintentionally killing them. They will eventually photodegrade, but as they do they leach toxic chemicals like bisphenol A into the water.
What can we do as consumers to help stop the spread of garbage pollution? The first thing we should focus on is recycling our plastics and investing more of our money into biodegradeable materials.
According to Holly Bamford, director of NOAA's Marine Debris Program, "We need to turn off the taps at the source. We need to educate people on the proper disposal of things that do not break up, like plastics," she says. "Opportunities for recycling have to increase, but, you know, some people buy three bottles of water a day. As a society, we have to get better at reusing what we buy."