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Marine Debris puts our oceans in peril - November 19, 2013

Imagine a sperm whale, a 60-foot, 45-ton behemoth that can dive down to around 3,300 feet in order to chase and find its favorite food source: squid. There have been records of this magnificent animal fighting and eating another of the world’s largest animals, Architeuthis dux, otherwise known as the giant squid.

Nearly 3,000 feet below the sun and waves, the sperm whale and giant squid fight for survival and food; the sperm whale biting and thrashing its massive tail and the squid chomping with its beak and tearing holes in the whale’s flesh with dinner-plate-sized suction cups lined with hooks. Here in the lightless waters below the phototropic zone, where the water pressure could crush a human body in mere seconds, these giant aquatic animals engage in an epic struggle of life and death that has been going on for centuries.

But now there is a much more dangerous problem than giant squids and sharks facing sperm whales and other marine mammals: manmade marine debris.

It is estimated that every year, more than 100,000 marine mammals die, due in part to ingesting or getting stuck in human debris and trash. It may seem impossible for trash like plastic bags, fishing line and other debris to kill a 45-ton animal like a sperm whale, something that is larger and heavier than a school bus, but it is occurring more and more frequently.­

According to a necropsy of a young adult sperm whale that recently washed up off the shore of the Netherlands, the sperm whale had approximately 37 pounds of trash in its stomach and digestive tracts. The suspected reason for death? Intestinal blockage. The whale had eaten things like plastic bags, fishing line, 18 feet of rope, flower pots, spray canisters and plastic sheeting used to make greenhouses.

It is not just whales that suffer from accidentally eating our marine garbage. Dolphins, sharks and sea turtles have all been found with marine debris in their stomachs.

Marine animals cannot tell the difference between their favorite food sources and human-made trash that resembles their food. When marine animals ingest or get caught in human debris, it is almost inevitably fatal. They cannot digest the trash or get rid of it, so they can end up getting sick or being unable to eat or swim.

Marine mammals and sea turtles are not the only victims of manmade trash. It is estimated that more than 1 million birds die each year from plastic debris. One shocking example of this are the albatross chicks that live on the Midway Atoll. These nesting chicks were fed plastic by their parents

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