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Scientists discover troubling explanation behind recent whale death: 'It's heartbreaking to see this kind of destruction'

"This is the first sperm whale in Hawaiian waters where we have seen this kind of ingestion."

“This is the first sperm whale in Hawaiian waters where we have seen this kind of ingestion."

Photo Credit: iStock

A dead sperm whale washed ashore in Hawaii earlier this year, and scientists suspect they have found the culprit: plastic

What happened?

Scientists believe the whale, which beached in Kauai, died from ingesting fishing traps and nets, plastic bags, and other marine debris. The 56-foot, 120,000-pound marine mammal had foreign objects at the opening of its intestinal tract that prevented it from digesting its food. 

"This is the first sperm whale in Hawaiian waters where we have seen this kind of ingestion of discarded fishing gear and nets," Kristi West, the director of the University of Hawaii's Health and Stranding Lab, said in a press release. "It's heartbreaking to see this kind of destruction in an individual animal."

After examining the whale's stomach, scientists found six hagfish traps, seven varieties of fishing nets, two kinds of plastic bags, and multiple fishing lines. The whale's stomach was so big that researchers were unable to study its entirety and believe there were more items they could not recover. 

Why is this whale death concerning? 

The whale death is a jarring reminder of how dangerous plastic pollution is to marine life. Even creatures as large as sperm whales can fall victim to plastic debris in the ocean. 

Researchers estimate there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in the ocean. Roughly 269,000 tons of this waste floats on the ocean surface, and about four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer pollute the deep sea. 

Not only does this pose a risk to marine life that mistake these items for food, but it can also contaminate human food. Toxins from plastic pollution contaminate fish, and humans are exposed to these toxins when eating seafood. 

What can I do to help protect marine life? 

Plastic waste is endangering marine species, and it is our responsibility to reduce ocean pollution. Luckily, there are a variety of solutions everyone can participate in. 

The simplest way to fight plastic pollution is to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. There are many reusable products that you can introduce to your daily life to replace these items. 

When you go shopping, bring reusable grocery bags, and instead of using plastic water bottles, try carrying around a reusable one.  

Participating in beach or river cleanups or donating to organizations that conduct them, like 4ocean or The Ocean Cleanup, is the most direct way to prevent ocean plastic pollution. Clearing trash from coastlines not only saves the ocean from plastic debris, but you may also save a life.

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