The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has added the sperm whale, or cachalot, to the list of endangered species. The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale and the biggest predator in the world, measuring up to 67 feet in length.
They can also live up to 70 years, but each year more sperm whales are found dead on beaches.
In an effort to determine why this is happening, scientists have dissected sperm whales to look for clues that would explain their deaths.
What they found in the animals’ stomachs was startling. Plastic. So much plastic, in the form of litter, pieces of buckets, and even a 13-metre-long fishing net inside of one whale.
It’s believed that the whales consumed this garbage and other items because they assumed it was food. With their stomachs full of plastic waste, the whales were starving.
According to report from The Guardian, Robert Habeck, environment minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where a large number of whales beached, said: “These findings show us the results of our plastic-oriented society. Animals inadvertently consume plastic and plastic waste, which causes them to suffer, and at worst, causes them to starve with full stomachs.”
Additionally, Nicola Hodgins, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, noted: “Although the large pieces will cause obvious problems and block the gut, we shouldn’t dismiss the smaller bits that could cause a more chronic problem for all species of cetacean – not just those who suction feed.”
The article also recounts the 2011 story of a sperm whale found dead off the Greek island of Mykonos. Its distended stomach was not filled with a giant squid that scientists believed it swallowed, but rather the animal’s four stomachs contained almost 100 plastic bags and other garbage.
Commenters on the story were understandably disheartened that this has happened, with one noting: “A truly depressing story. Unfortunately, we currently live in a world that is being run by people who think of the living world and environment as nothing but a resource to be stripped, commodified and sold off and have the attitude that anything that can’t be profited from can be damned.
Another person explained why the animals may be mistakenly consuming the litter, writing: “There are floating islands of plastic all over the Earth’s seas, I read somewhere some are as large as cities. I expect some mimic shoals of fish and sea animals try to eat them. I blame Tesco etc, I see in my local express they have ready chopped apples in plastic to keep them fresh! The skin already does that! But plastic keeps its self life longer and profit is KING!”
Still another commented, simply: “I believe that stupid humans are the greatest threat to us all.”
This person shared a sad reality as well: “In 2010, eight million tons of plastic trash ended up in the ocean from coastal countries—far more than the total that has been measured floating on the surface in the ocean’s ‘garbage patches.’ That’s the bad news. The even worse news is that the tonnage is on target to increase tenfold in the next decade unless the world finds a way to improve how garbage is collected and managed.”