How Many Whales Die From Plastic Each Year?
By Lauren Orme
Whales are the most intelligent creatures in the ocean. The biggest whale, the blue whale, is the largest animal to have ever lived on our planet (bigger than any of the dinosaurs!). Whales sing, mourn their dead, and even have their own names (Center for Biological Diversity). Because of their size and superior intelligence, whales are rarely the prey of other animals. But because of humans, a new “predator” has been killing whales in growing numbers—plastic.
How Many Whales Die Each Year?
Between December 2022 and March of 2023, several species of whale, including ten humpbacks, were stranded on the beach between New York and North Carolina. It was the highest number of whale deaths recorded in that time span. While the cause of these deaths is still being researched, the same thing occurred in that region in the winter of 2016-2017, and the amount of cargo ships in the Atlantic Ocean is rapidly increasing (National Geographic).
Like most marine life, whales are negatively impacted by pollution, boat traffic, ocean acidification, and rising ocean temperatures. At least 70 whales die each year from human causes, including whaling, or hunting, which takes place in some parts of the world like Norway and Japan (Scientific American), and the number of whale deaths is growing. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of whales have been killed by plastic.
How Is Plastic Killing Whales?
Plastic gets to the ocean in several ways. Litter left on beaches or runoff from streets eventually makes its way to the sea. Some plastic pollution comes from boats or weather events, and even more comes from the fishing industry. Over 10% of the plastic pollution in the ocean is lost or abandoned fishing gear (World Wildlife). Scientists estimate that over 5 million tons of plastic is in the ocean today. That is the same weight as 5 million buffalo or 25,000 blue whales (PLOS ONE).
Plastic does not decompose. Over time, exposure to sunlight breaks plastic products into smaller pieces in a process called photodegradation. These microplastics are approximately 5 mm wide and start circulating vertically with plankton through ocean water columns (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration).
Because microplastic moves through the water column with plankton, and plankton are the main food source of krill, baleen whales like humpback and blue whales that feed on krill accidentally consume an enormous amount of plastic. Analysis of the feeding behavior in blue whales shows a single whale can accidentally consume up to 10 million pieces of microplastic in one day (Stanford).
How Many Animals Die A Year Due To Plastic Pollution?
Over 240 species of marine life consume plastic, and even more are threatened by entanglement, or getting caught in nylon fishing nets (nylon is a plastic product). Over one million ocean animals are killed by plastic every year (UNESCO).
Learn More: Scroll BelowHow_Many_Animals_Die_from_Plastic_Pollution-_Hemingway_Analysis.docx (1)
Which Animals Consume The Most Plastic?
Marine life, including turtles and seabirds, are ingesting plastic in growing numbers. Some dead birds have been found with over twenty five pieces of plastic in their stomachs (National Geographic). Animals that eat plastic face a series of issues, including starvation, nutrient deprivation, and gastric obstruction (World Wildlife).
Plastic is not always eaten directly. Microplastics are ingested by small fish which are then eaten by bigger animals. Gradually the plastic, and any toxic chemicals within it, build up in the systems of bigger animals in a process called bioaccumulation. Whales store nutrients in the fat on their body (blubber), and can be slowly poisoned by these chemicals over time (Blue Ocean Society).
The Importance of Marine Life
The ocean affects the planet’s water cycle, weather, and climate, and provides food and habitat for billions of animals. A stable planet relies on a healthy, balanced ocean.
Every organism has a role in its ecosystem. When one member of an ecosystem is affected, the entire balance is threatened.
Whales are among the marine life that relies on healthy oceans, and healthy oceans depend on whales. Over their lifetimes, whales provide critical fertilizer for marine ecosystems and combat climate disruption. One whale can capture approximately the same amount of carbon as 1,000 trees! (World Wildlife). The lifespans of whales vary from 100 – 200 years, which means carbon can be stored in living whales for generations. If the ocean loses its whales, the whole planet will be affected, including humans.
You Can Help!
Plastic in the ocean is a terrible problem, but anyone can make a difference. Avoid using plastic products whenever you can, especially single use plastic. Before using a plastic product, take a moment to consider if there is an alternative.
Some plastic can be recycled, but it must be done carefully! If the wrong materials end up in recycling, the whole load is sometimes thrown away, including highly recyclable materials like aluminum.
It’s challenging to regulate plastic production internationally, and the policies that do exist favor the economy over ecology (PLOS ONE). One of the most effective things you can do to stop plastic pollution is consuming consciously. Choosing products made locally will reduce shipping pollution and boat strikes on whales, and selecting items packaged in aluminum or biodegradable material sends a clear message. Corporations will start using eco-friendly alternatives to plastic if there is a market for it.
Our choices today will impact tomorrow, but what about plastic already in the ocean? Follow Ocean Blue Project to learn more about other ways to help, like hosting your own cleanup or finding a beach or river cleanup near you!
Author Bio: Lauren Orme is a writer with a background in environmental studies and marine science. She loves exploring the ocean and is passionate about sharing it with others. In her free time, Lauren likes to be outside with her dog.