On Valentine’s Day 2020, a humpback whale was spotted off the coast of San Diego, entangled in a green plastic fishing net. It struggled to migrate along the California coast and jumped repeatedly to try desperately to rid itself of the net. But rescuers couldn’t get safely close enough to try to cut the net.
Wildlife photographer Dominic Biagini, the first to spot the snapping whale, shared his photos: thick green cords pulled taut across the skin; water stirred to a white foam. Biagini wrote, “I have no words to describe the heartbreak.”
The whale is gone.
The whale’s tortuous journey caused a brief media buzz, and its ultimate fate is unknown. But it likely joined the tens of thousands of whales and other marine mammals killed each year by plastic pollution and plastic fishing gear, and sank dead to the bottom of the ocean.
The plastic scourge in our oceans is steadily increasing, taking an increasingly deadly toll on whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals, not to mention other marine life.
A new report published by the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project has just released chronicles of massacres, examines the science on this growing epidemic, identifies the culprits in the plastics and fishing industries, and calls for specific policy solutions in plastic hotspots around the world.
Plastic plagues our oceans and marine mammals pay the price. They are strangled by plastic waste, filled with toxic microplastics and entangled in plastic fishing gear.
- Many marine mammals — including the North Atlantic right whale, Hawaiian monk seal, Gulf of California vaquita, Irrawaddy dolphin, and many species of river dolphins — are rapidly becoming extinct. We must immediately limit plastic pollution and plastic fishing gear to help save them.
- Plastic permeates all our oceans, but microplastics are most highly concentrated in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and offshore urban areas, where they suffocate marine mammals and bioaccumulate in seafood that often ends up on people’s plates.
- Entanglement of whales in lobsters, crabs and other trapping gear has increased dramatically on the east and west coasts of the United States. It’s time to replace these mazes of tangled lines with new ropeless or pop-up gear.
- Most fishing gear is made of plastic that is harmful to marine mammals, both when fishing actively and when lost at sea. Gillnets and other plastic fishing gear inadvertently kill tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine mammals every year. Bycatch is a plastic problem and switching to more sustainable fishing gear is the solution.
- It is crucial to slow the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans. Plastic is largely non-recyclable, so we need to stop making so much single-use plastic that will inevitably kill marine life.
- We must hold industries, including the oil industry, the plastic industry, and plastic net and line manufacturers, accountable for stopping this flow of plastic pollution and cleaning up the mess.
The plastic scourge is just our latest assault on marine life. Commercial harpoons pushed many whales and other marine mammals to the brink of extinction before we banned commercial whaling. Plastic pollution and irresponsible fishing practices threaten to wipe out decades of ocean conservation progress and destroy many vulnerable marine species.
We just can’t keep filling our oceans with plastic or wait for future generations to clean up our mess. Now is the time to act.
Dave Phillips is executive director of Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Berkeley.
Mark J. Palmer is a biologist by training and an environmental advocate for 50 years. He is associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project at the Earth Island Institute.
Their recent report, “The Plastics Plague: Marine Mammals and Our Oceans in Peril” is a blueprint for reform.