Marine animals are swallowing and becoming entangled in plastic at alarming rates, report finds

Nearly 1,800 animals since 2009 have had life-threatening encounters.

November 19, 2020, 6:14 PM

A new report details the grim circumstances facing marine animals as millions of pounds of plastic continue to make their way into the oceans every year.

Nearly 1,800 animals from 40 different species swallowed or became entangled in plastic between 2009 and 2018, the report, by ocean conservation group Oceana, found. About 88% were animals listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, including Hawaiian monk seals, Stellar sea lions, manatees and all six species of sea turtle found in the U.S.

A sea lion with a packing strap stuck around its neck in Alaska.
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game via AFP/Getty Images

The plastic was found to have affected the animals at all life stages, from recently hatched sea turtles to seal mothers with nursing pups. More than 800 animals listed in the report were sea turtles, and more than 900 were marine mammals.

Researches added that the numbers in the report are likely conservative estimates, as not every affected animal is reported.

The pieces of plastic chronicled in the report ranged from microplastics that perforated the gastrointestinal tract of a baby sea turtle to DVD cases and "huge plastic sheets" that had been swallowed by whales.

Plastic packing straps, bags, balloons with strings, and sheeting were the items most commonly reported.

A manatee swims among discarded plastic in South Florida.
4ocean via AFP/Getty Images

The animals also came into contact with items such as zip ties, dental floss and mesh produce bags seen at grocery stores, Dr. Kimberly Warner, the author of the report and a senior scientist at Oceana, said in a statement. Other incidents involved items including bottle caps, water bottles, straws, buckets, plastic chairs, plastic forks, toothbrushes, children's toys, buckets, bubble wrap, sponges, swim goggles, plastic holiday grass, sandwich bags and polystyrene cups, the report said.

The animals often mistake plastic for food or swallow it while swimming or feeding, according to experts. After it's consumed, the plastic can lacerate their intestines or obstruct digestion, according to the report. When the plastic remains in an animal's stomach, they may believe they are full and not seek to eat, leading to starvation or death, scientists say.

In some cases, just one piece of ingested plastic may have been enough to contribute to an animal's death, like in the case of a pygmy sperm whale whose dead body was discovered in New Jersey with just one plastic bag in its stomach, according to the report.

A baby sea turtle stuck in plastic on a beach in Florida.
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center via AFP/Getty Images

And when entangled in plastic, some marine life can drown, choke or suffer physical trauma or amputation, which can then lead to infection, the report said.

In one case study, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle drowned after a plastic bag filled with sand wrapped around its neck, according to the study. Scientists believe the turtle drowned from the weight of the bag.

A sea turtle deformed after being entangled in plastic, is treated at the Sea Turtle Hospital at University of Florida Whitney Laboratory.
The Sea Turtle Hospital via AFP/Getty Images

Scientists estimate that 15 million metric tons of plastic flow into the ocean every year -- the equivalent of about two garbage trucks' worth every minute, according to the report.

Plastic production is expected to quadruple in the coming decades, and the amount of plastic flowing into the oceans will triple by 2040 if nothing changes, Christy Leavitt, one of the report's coauthors, said in a statement.

Researchers complied the report by surveying dozens of governmental agencies, organizations and institutions that collect data on the impact of plastics on wildlife.

PHOTO: A spinner dolphin jumps out of the water with plastic around the nose, in an undated photo.
A spinner dolphin jumps out of the water with plastic around the nose, in an undated photo. There are nearly 1,800 cases of turtles and marine mammals that have swallowed or become entangled in plastic objects off the American coast since 2009, according to a report by the American NGO, Oceana, which attempts to describe the cumulative impact of plastic pollution on marine fauna in the United States over the past decade.
Pacific Whale Foundation via AFP/Getty Images

Stopping plastic from entering the ocean will take a combination of action by both government and big business, according to the researchers. To do so, not only must companies reduce the production of plastic, especially single-use plastic, but they must offer plastic-free choices to consumers. In addition, governments at all levels must pass policies to reduce the production of single-use plastics, and federal agencies tasked with protecting oceans and the species within them must require standardized reporting of all plastic interaction cases, the researchers said.

"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 in a statement. "We can only expect these cases to increase as the industry continues to push single-use plastic into consumers' hands."