A decade of plastic has entangled, choked and drowned over 1,500 endangered marine mammals in U.S. waters, new report finds

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A seal in Hawaii, found by NOAA Fisheries with plastic around its snout.
NOAA FISHERIES

(CBS NEWS) – In Florida, a sea turtle drowned after a plastic bag filled with sand wrapped around its neck. In Virginia, a sei whale developed gastric ulcers, harming her ability to find food, after a DVD case she swallowed lacerated her stomach. In Delaware, a young, emaciated pilot whale was found dead with instant-ramen noodle bags in its gut. 

Endangered marine animals, threatened with extinction, are losing their battle against plastic in the United States. Nearly 1,800 of them, including a significant number of sea turtles, have consumed or become entangled in plastic since 2009 — and a new report says the true numbers are likely much more devastating. 

Oceana, the world’s largest ocean conservation organization, released a report Thursday, detailing, for the first time, data showing plastic’s impact on marine mammals and sea turtles in the U.S. Of the 1,792 examples studied, a stunning 88% featured animals listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act, including Hawaiian monk seals, manatees, Steller sea lions and all six species of U.S. sea turtle. 

The new report sheds light on yet another life-threatening hazard for these high-risk creatures. Marine mammals already battle pollution, habitat loss and destruction, commercial fishing gear, vessel strikes, illegal poaching and harmful algal blooms — not to mention a plethora of climate crises, from sea level rise to warming oceans. 

Researchers surveyed dozens of government agencies, organizations and institutions to collect the data, which spans 40 different species. Oceana says the number of animals surveyed is far fewer than the actual number affected by the flood of plastics into our oceans, which it called “an unfolding disaster.” 

“While there may never be a complete account of the fate of all marine animals impacted by plastic, this report paints a grim picture,” study author Dr. Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, said in a news release. “The world is hooked on plastic because the industry continues to find increasingly more ways to force this persistent pollutant into our everyday routines — and it’s choking, strangling and drowning marine life.” 

Warner said the plastics found in the study are not just the everyday items such as water bottles, bags and bottle caps. Rather, the animals consumed or were entangled by everything from zip ties to dental flossers to recreational fishing line to food wrappers. Additional items included straws, toothbrushes, bubble wrap, children’s toys, balloons and sandwich bags. 

Researchers only expect the situation to get worse as Americans continue to overuse single-use plastics, contributing to the estimated 300 million tons of plastic waste the United Nations said is produced every year.

According to the report, plastics affect marine animals at all stages of life, including recently hatched sea turtles and seal mothers in the process of nursing their pups. And the plastics ranged widely in size, from microplastics to huge plastic sheets.  

Plastic consumption was the overwhelming theme of the report, detailed in 90% of the total animal cases reviewed. Researchers said entanglement, often involving bags, balloons and plastic sheeting, was still significant, affecting animals in “heartbreaking, sometimes gruesome, ways.” 

When animals swallow plastic, either because they mistook it for food or swallowed it inadvertently while feeding or swimming, it can both obstruct digestion and lacerate intestines, leading to starvation and death. Entanglement can also lead to malnutrition, as well as drowning, choking, amputation or infection, the report said. 

Animals do not need to consume a significant amount of plastic for it to have lethal effects. In some cases, ingesting just one piece of plastic proved deadly. 

Researchers found animals in U.S. waters consume plastic at higher amounts than is expected worldwide. Some sea turtle groups studied consumed plastic up to three times more often than average for their species, while the northern fur seal consumed plastic up to 50 times more often than average for eared seals.

The findings echo a paper released last month that found the U.S. has generated the most plastic waste globally, a large portion of which was found in the environment. 

“This report is merely a snapshot of what’s happening to the animals inhabiting plastic-polluted waters around the United States — imagine how great the numbers would be if they included the animals not observed or documented by humans,” said co-author Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director at Oceana. 

According to Oceana, plastic production is expected to quadruple in the next few decades, leading to three times the amount of plastic in the ocean by 2040. The organization called on national, state and local governments to pass policies ensuring companies stop producing unnecessary plastic, especially as the necessary production of plastics for medical use has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Oceana recommended companies instead offer plastic-free choices for consumers, including reusable and refillable containers and packaging. It also called on federal agencies, including NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to improve their reporting standards of animals interacting with plastics. 

“Plastic is designed to last forever, yet so much of it is used only once,” the report states. “This makes it an obvious target for policies aimed at reducing harmful ocean pollution.” 

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