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Published on Thursday, September 1, 2016

Twenty-Nine Sperm Whales Found Dead

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Twenty-Nine Sperm Whales Found Dead
In mid-August, 29 dead sperm whales washed ashore on North Sea Island in Germany.  Environmentalists were saddened to discover the dead marine animals and even more horrified when they learnt their stomachs contained an alarming amount of plastic products.  It is suspected that these toxic plastics may have led to these animals’ deaths.

What they found inside their stomachs


Reports from the Wadden Sea National Park in Schleswig-Holstein, the region of North Sea Island, stated that the whales’ stomachs were filled with plastic debris.  This debris included a fishing net that was 13 meters long and 1.2 meters wide, a 70 centimeter long plastic part from a car engine and multiple sharp fragments from a plastic bucket.

Why do whales eat plastic? 

Unfortunately, many marine animals, including whales, mistake plastic products for food.  For whales, many plastic products that end up in the oceans resemble squid, which is a main staple of the whale diet.  So the real cause of plastic winding up in the stomachs of marine life is the overabundance of plastic products in the ocean to start with.  Humans are directly responsible for the polluting of ocean waters with plastic products. 

Effect of plastic products on whales

Nicola Hodgkins of Whale and Dolphin Conservation explains that plastics, both large and small, can have fatal effects on marine life.  For animals, such as whales, that swallow larger pieces of plastic, these products can block the gut.  In this way, the animal ends up starving to death while their stomach is actually full of plastic.  Hodgkins urges would-be polluters to not disregard the effects of small pieces of plastic either.  She explains that small pieces can also cause chronic problems, especially for smaller marine life. 

Where we have seen this before

Unfortunately, finding plastic products in the stomachs of deceased whales is not a new occurrence.  One alarming case in 2011 happened off the coast of Mykonos, Greece.  A young whale washed up on shore with a stomach so distended biologists were convinced the young animal had swallowed a giant squid.  Instead, upon dissection they discovered almost 100 plastic bags and other plastic debris inside the whale’s stomach.  

Earlier this year in the Wadden Sea area off Germany’s coast, 13 whales were stranded and eventually died in the shallow waters.  Unfortunately, the whales were trapped in the low tides.  The weight of their bodies compressed their organs and they died of cardiovascular failure.  However, four of the thirteen whales were also found to have large amounts of plastic products in their stomachs. 

How big is the plastic problem?

In April, we reported that the pollution of plastics in the ocean had grown so catastrophic that seafood eaters were now ingesting plastic particles.  These plastic pieces could cause serious health concerns for the humans unknowingly eating them.  We learned that humans produce 300 millions tons of plastic each year and that 8 million tons of that waste ends up in the oceans annually.  

The plastic problem has gotten so harmful that plastic pollution is literally overrunning marine life.  By 2025, oceans will contain 1.1 tons of plastic per every 3.3 tons of fish.  As we shared in March, this over-pollution is mainly due to the lack of recycling of plastic products.  Only 14% of plastics are recycled worldwide.  These items end up in our oceans and don’t dissolve or decompose leaving plastics as a huge threat to marine life.   Solutions to this problem include public education on plastic recycling, investment in solutions to reduce plastic waste and support for legislation that enforces plastic recycling standards or reduces the use and waste of plastic products.  

Political response to the plastic problem

Following these whale tragedies, the Ministry of energy, transition, agriculture, environment and rural areas in Schleswig-Holstein released a statement.  Robert Habeck, environment minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein, stated that these deaths were a result of our plastic-reliant society.  Marine animals accidentally consume our plastic waste and end up suffering, sometimes to the point of death.  Habeck continued and said that incidents such as the death of these sperm whales remind us that we need to step up our fight against waste in the sea.

Positive outlook on reducing plastic pollution

Fighting ocean pollution is something Schleswig-Holstein residents have begun to get on board with.  In 2015, the Ministry launched a Fishing for Litter campaign to help combat the serious issue of over-polluted waters.  This campaign included instituting plastic-free regions and garbage collection. 

They now look to the federal government to support their cause.  They are calling for a peripheral action plan that will protect marine life.  Environmentalists in the area also believe that changes need to target the waste production from the manufacturing industry.

Stateside, California will soon become the first state to ban the use of plastic bags in grocery stores.  These bags often find their way into ocean waters and into the stomachs of marine life, such as the 2011 whale death in Greece.  This ban aims to reduce plastic waste and will hopefully be the first of many steps to correct the over-pollution of plastics in our oceans.  

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Author: Ccarrell

Categories: Blogs, Why Go Green, Animals & Wildlife

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