A new report, “The Plastics Plague: Marine Mammals and Our Oceans in Peril,” explores the deadly interactions between marine mammals and plastic, from drowning in plastic nets to ingestion and nervous system damage from plastic toxins. With the ocean on track to contain more plastic than fish by volume, this publication is a timely blueprint for action.
BERKELEY, CA (July 27, 2022) — The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), a project of Earth Island Institute, today released an in-depth report detailing the harmful impacts of plastics on marine mammals. “The Plastics Plague: Marine Mammals and Our Oceans in Peril” is a detailed survey focusing specifically on marine mammal vulnerabilities, from plastic ingestion to entanglement in plastic fishing nets and lines. It calls for specific solutions in plastic hot spots around the world.
The study finds plastic pollution and fishing gear to be the leading threat to marine mammals, with entangling plastic fishing gear killing more than 300,000 dolphins, porpoises, and small whales every year. In the U.S. alone, 74 large whales are reported entangled in fishing gear on average every year, although many more may die and sink, going unrecorded. Tens of thousands of seals and sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine life also die from plastic each year.
“Plastics are the plague of our oceans, from whales filled with plastic debris and microplastics to the deadly gillnets that strangle and drown dolphins,” said Mark J. Palmer, associate director of IMMP. “This report documents how plastic is killing and maiming marine mammals around the world. We surveyed the science on global plastic hot spots to recommend policies to stop this carnage and hold the plastics and fishing industries responsible.”
Each year, as much as 14 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean — an amount that could fill nearly enough garbage trucks, parked end to end, to encircle the entire globe. Some of these plastics, such as gillnets from the fishing industry, are large enough to drown large whales. Many marine mammals are washing up dead with stomachs full of plastic junk.
Other plastics break up and circulate in the ocean as microplastics — tiny toxic plastic particles that cause hormone and nervous system damage in mammals. These ocean plastics — much like climate change — are a mounting hazard not just to marine mammals but to all life on Earth, including humans. Swift, innovative action will be necessary to turn the tide on the escalating damages.
Unique in its approach, the report:
· Documents that plastic fishing gear, lines, and nets are a leading cause of drowning and deaths in marine mammals worldwide.
· Compiles thoroughly researched case studies from ocean areas around the globe, including California, Northeastern Atlantic, Australia, English Channel, Mediterranean, North Indian Ocean, Hawai’i, and South Africa.
· Names the major global manufacturers of plastics, plastic fishing gear, and nets, and precursor materials for plastics.
· Concludes that the manufacturers should be responsible for funding the cleanup of plastic pollution, banning entangling fishing gear, and replacing plastics with materials that do not harm the environment.
This new report aims to move the needle politically, laying out solutions using legislation and litigation, backed by grassroots involvement. It also paints a clear picture of “hot spots” around the world where vulnerable mammals are losing ground to plastics, including many threatened species that are only just beginning to recover from the impacts of commercial whaling.
Scientists anticipate that for some of these species, the percentage of their population lost to plastics every year is unsustainable, and could lead to population collapses for endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, North Atlantic right whales, Mexico’s vaquita, many river dolphin species, and others. These notes from the field are compelling entry points for journalists, organizations, and individuals to amplify these under-reported stories for wider audiences.
This report challenges plastics manufacturers to take responsibility for mitigating the damage their products cause and for taking leadership in seeking alternatives for a plastics-free future. The authors also lay out actions citizens can take to hold manufacturers and legislators accountable.
As a guide for legislative changes, citizen action, and media engagement, the new publication breaks ground in its detailed attention to marine mammals. The implications also extend to our own health and communities; we, too, are mammals, after all. The report can be read here.
Mark J. Palmer