The statistics on marine pollution are compelling. However, a simple walk on the beach is also enough to remind most people of our dependence on plastic as well as our inability to effectively dispose of all of it. In some places, it’s not only the sight of debris that can be seen, but also the remains of animals who died as a result of this mishandled garbage. Sometimes they ingest the plastic or become entangled in it before losing their ability to find food, move, or protect themselves.
In reality, much of the plastic affecting marine wildlife is not even visible to the naked eye, as it comes in the form of microplastics too small to see. But its effects are devastating nonetheless – sometimes it is even even more harmful than larger items that can be easily scooped up and removed.
Upwards of 300 million tons of plastic are used yearly, but the impact on animals is concerning for many. And given the timeline of our waste management quandary, we are merely at the beginning of what is destined to be a growing problem.
If the lives of marine animals are any indication of the future, we have yet to see the consequences of our inefficiency. According to experts, an estimated 700 marine species are negatively impacted by pollution each year, with 100 million animals dying as a result of the situation. So, what are the greatest victims of the world’s polluted shorelines?
One of the primary creatures endangered by the impact of poor waste management has gills and provides a major source of food for other wildlife. Unlike other animals on this list, fish are also the only ones that are an essential part of the human diet. A number of recent studies have indicated many of the fish people eat – from trout to salmon to tuna – have ingested some form of microplastic or fiber at one time.
The toxification of fish threatens the staple food source of other animals as well, such as albatross and whales. The watery habitat of fish puts them at risk to an endless variety of plastic debris, mostly through digestion. Although they do not suffer much as a result, their ingestion of plastic is beginning to affect land animals and the broader marine ecosystem.
2. Sea Turtles
These creatures often mistake plastic waste for food, sometimes even consuming large chunks of plastic in one sitting. This mistake then blocks their natural digestive process and can lead to illness. Unfortunately, sea turtles are also threatened by a number of other factors, which makes their problem with ocean debris even more concerning.
Studies have concluded that over half of surveyed seas turtles are, in fact, eating plastic and may die as a result. Additionally, 15 percent of the babies in that population have also ingested such materials, even though their lives have been relatively short.
3. Seals and Sea Lions
When people think about sea creatures affected by plastic debris, they tend to forget larger marine mammals can also be victims. Seals and sea lions are often trapped by plastic garbage, fishing lines, and rogue packaging, just like birds and turtles. In fact, human plastics are a major threat to the largest of the sea lion breeds, the Stellar Sea Lion, which has a tremendous appetite.
Studies out of Alaska and British Columbia have confirmed a number of these animals ingest significant amounts of debris, like rubber bands and plastic packaging. These materials cannot be digested and become permanently embedded in their systems. This can lead to infection and death.
4. Whales and Dolphins
Like other animal victims of plastic debris, whales and dolphins often mistake floating plastic for viable food. Because the mouth of a whale is so large, it often lacks the precision to choose carefully, gulping down whatever flows its way. It cannot discriminate between what is edible and what is floating garbage. This can lead to obstructions or worse, tears in the stomach lining that eventually cause sickness and death.
Additionally, microplastics are not the only culprits. In fact, when 13 sperm whales washed up on the German coast in 2016, some shocking items were found in their systems, all of which were the result of human waste. The garbage they had digested included a plastic bucket, fishing nets, and even some plastic switch to Word car parts. Although it was not the “food” that killed them, it was still a disquieting reminder that much of what ends up in the ocean makes into the larger ecosystem.
Possibly the biggest casualty of this situation, marine birds like seagulls, albatross, and many more die by the millions each year. Any seabird that takes its meals from the ocean can be deeply impacted by plastic debris.
For birds like albatross, plastic is especially harmful because these animals often dive into the ocean to snatch up fish and skim their beaks along the ocean’s surface. As a result, they pick up tiny pieces of plastic along the way. Because of their dietary instincts, it’s estimated that 98 percent of these creatures have ingested some type of plastic.