How severely the world’s plastic waste crisis is affecting marine wildlife is not fully understood, despite decades of research and gruesome images of whales’ bellies filled with plastic and a turtle with a straw lodged in its nostril. A new report by Oceana, a conservation group, illustrates some of what we know about how plastic affects sea turtles and marine mammals in United States waters.
The findings offer a glimpse of a larger problem.
The authors focused on sea turtles and marine mammals for practical reasons. These animals are federally protected, so when they are found in distress or wash up dead on a beach, responders are required to document it. By collecting data from government agencies and marine life organizations around the country, the authors found almost 1,800 cases of plastic entanglement or ingestion affecting 40 species since 2009.
But the report notes that the number is “a gross underestimate” because humans observe a tiny fraction of animal deaths in the ocean. Even so, of the nation’s 23 coastal states, it found cases in 21.
“This is the first time we’re looking at the problem from a U.S. perspective,” said Kimberly Warner, the report’s author and a senior scientist at Oceana. “This brings the problem home.”
In 2016, the United States produced more plastic waste than any other nation, and more of that plastic entered the ocean than previously thought, according to a recent study. As of 2015, less than a tenth of the world’s cumulative plastic waste had been recycled.
The Oceana report found that in the reported cases, 90 percent of the animals had swallowed plastic, and the rest were entangled in it. Necropsies often showed that the animals had died from blockages or lacerations. Other times, ingesting plastic may have simply weakened the animal or played no role in its death. Overall, in 82 percent of the cases, the animals died.
The culprits go beyond the usual suspects.
In the 1980s, environmental activists warned of the devastating effects of six-pack rings ensnaring sea animals. People started dutifully cutting them before disposal, and in 1994 the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that six-pack rings must be degradable, though the process may take months. Consumers have also been warned about releasing balloons, which can harm marine animals.
Recently some municipalities, counties and states have banned single-use plastic bags, one of the biggest contributors to ingestion and entanglements, according to the report. Plastic packing straps were found constricting the necks or bodies of seals and sea lions, naturally curious animals who may have gotten entangled while trying to play. Manatees ingested lots of fishing line.
But the report also found many more surprising items caused harm. Along the Gulf Coast, mesh produce bags were found in the guts of sea turtles and also entangling their bodies. In 2015, a loggerhead turtle in Georgia was found with a toothbrush and fork in its digestive tract, among other items. Two years later, another turtle was found in New York with a plastic dental flosser inside it. Food wrappers, sandwich bags, sponges, and even decorative plastic Easter grass…
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