Growing Garbage

A sperm whale stranded on the coast of Spain died after eating plastics from greenhouses, scientists have concluded. The study raises concerns that waste from greenhouse agriculture could threaten marine mammals.

The oceans are rife with plastic garbage, and animals ranging from turtles to seabirds have died after swallowing the trash. But scientists have found relatively few cases of whales suffering from eating plastic. When researchers do find garbage in whales’ stomachs, it’s often fishing gear such as nets or hooks.

The team studied a dead sperm whale that washed up on a beach in southeast Spain last year. The animal’s stomach had ruptured, apparently because it had eaten a large amount of plastic. The ingested garbage included flowerpots, hosepipe, almost 30 square meters of plastic greenhouse covers, and four pieces of plastic mulch.

Greenhouse agriculture is popular in the Mediterranean and involves the use of many plastics, the team notes. Surveys suggest that sperm whales feed “near an area completely flooded by the greenhouse industry,” the authors write in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Scientists will need to examine more stranded sperm whales in the area to determine if the problem is widespread. Roberta Kwok | 5 March 2013

Source: De Stephanis, R. et al. 2013. As main meal for sperm whales: Plastics debris. Marine Pollution Bulletin doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2013.01.033.

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