While many would not be surprised to find a fish in the belly of a sperm whale, it would be quite shocking to find a child’s plastic toy. But this is exactly what researchers found inside sperm whale bellies, along with many other non-biodegradable plastic pollutants like balloons, mattresses and plastic bags!
A new study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin shows whales swallowing trash from the Spanish-Mediterranean coast, and in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Spanish scientists performed an autopsy on a sperm whale found on a beach in Granada, Spain in 2012. The whale was 10 meter (almost 33 foot) long. Led by Renaud de Stephanis the study authors found a number of non-biodegradable pollutants in the whale’s tummy.
“These animals feed in waters near an area completely flooded by the greenhouse industry, making them vulnerable to its waste products,” writes de Stephanis in his paper. “Interestingly, most types of these plastic materials have been found in the individual examined, starting with two flowerpots. The main debris found in the animal was identified as the plastic cover material of greenhouses.”
In that single whale the researchers shockingly found almost 40 pounds of 59 different plastic items.
Image Via Renaud de Stephanis: “Plastic debris found in the stomach coming from greenhouse: (a) flower pot, (b) hosepipe, (c) greenhouse cover material, (d) plastic burlap, (e) rope, and (f) plastic mulch of greenhouse.”
The study authors have also listed known marine pollutants found in whales, from studies from 1903 to present along with their findings.
The lead researcher says that ingesting such material can lead to brutal deaths in whales with “gastric rupture following impaction with debris, which added to a previous problem of starvation.”
The team emphasises the need for more research on the stomach content of marine animals as the subject of marine pollution has not been studied in detail according to them. They also add that more efficient method of waste-disposal for the Mediterranean agricultural industry is needed.
The study is clear,”These debris issue should have a relevant section in the conservation plan of the species.”
Since 1996 more than 14 sperm whale bodies have been found in the region since 1996 and though this particular case may be an oddity, the death of so many whales could be because of the same reason and it needs to be investigated further.