Ocean Plastic Pollution’s Shocking Death Toll on Endangered Animals

Scientists find that hundreds of species are being harmed or killed by the trash we toss into the seas.

This sea turtle's front fins were severely injured after it became entangled in a fishing net. (Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Feb 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Tens of thousands of individual animals from hundreds of marine species—including every kind of sea turtle and around half of marine mammals—have encountered plastic, glass, and other garbage in the ocean, according to a new study.

Often the encounters are fatal. And they may be helping to push some beleaguered species toward extinction in the wild.

Those are some of the findings in the most comprehensive look at the effects of debris on marine wildlife since 1997. Coauthors Sarah Gall and Richard Thompson, marine biologists at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, looked in 340 different publications for reports about animal encounters with marine trash. They found that 693 species of marine animals had some sort of interaction with human-made debris, with 17 percent of them listed with some degree of vulnerability to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Sometimes these encounters involved glass, metal, or paper. But plastic surged past those materials as a hazard to ocean wildlife, turning up in almost 92 percent of animal-meets-marine debris reports, according to the study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

There were a total of 44,006 incidents of individual animals across 395 species that had eaten plastic bits or been tangled in plastic rope or netting. Around 80 percent of the time, these encounters injured or killed the animal.

There were reports of 138 hawksbill turtles, 73 Kemp’s ridley turtles, and 62 leatherback sea turtles tangled in plastic. All three are listed as critically endangered—one step below extinct in the wild—on the IUCN Red List.

Marine mammals as a group proved especially vulnerable to marine plastic debris, with 30,896 of the reports involving these animals tangled in ropes or netting. They included 215 Hawaiian monk seals, a critically endangered species, and 38 endangered northern right whales, as well as 3,835 northern fur seals and 3,587 California sea lions.

Among seabirds, Gall and Thompson found 174 records of individual birds from more than 150 species being tangled in or eating plastic. They included 3,444 northern fulmars 1,674 Atlantic puffins, 971 Laysan albatross, and 895 greater shearwaters.

As shocking as these numbers are, the scope of the problem may be much greater.

The researchers stressed that their findings were “an underestimate of the impacts of marine debris” on marine animals.

They noted, however, that least we’re past denying the problem.

“There is wide recognition that marine debris does not belong, nor does it need to be, in the marine environment,” they wrote. “Finding effective solutions requires a holistic approach,” from cleaning up what’s already out there to changing the chemical makeup of plastics to be less toxic and lasting in the ocean.