Towards Plastic-Free Oceans

It’s time for Congress to protect marine mammals from dangerous plastic pollution.

On February 14, 2020, people on a whale-watching boat out of San Diego, California, spotted an enormous whale leaping out of the water. The humpback breached again and again, breaking the surface with thunderous splashes. Soon, astonishment turned to horror as the spectators saw that the whale’s body and mouth were tangled tightly with green netting. The frantic whale thrashed and dove, violently trying to rid itself of the deadly meshes. Rescuers arrived, hoping to cut the net away, but they were unable to safely approach the agitated, school bus-sized animal.

In 2020, whale-watchers witnessed an enormous humpback severely entangled in a commercial gillnet off the San Diego coast. Despite days of search efforts, rescue teams were unable to help it. The fate of that whale is unknown. Photo by Domenic Biagini.
In 2020, whale-watchers witnessed an enormous humpback severely entangled in a commercial gillnet off the San Diego coast. Despite days of search efforts, rescue teams were unable to help it. The fate of that whale is unknown. Photo by Domenic Biagini.

The following day, the humpback was sighted again, farther north — still moving too erratically for rescuers to proceed safely. All up the California coast, whale watchers and response teams stood by, hoping for another sighting and another chance to help the panicked animal.

Wildlife photographer and whale watch operator Domenic Biagini, the first to sight the breaching whale, shared his pictures on Instagram: thick green cords drawn tightly across skin; water agitated into a white froth. Biagini wrote, “I don’t have the words to describe the heartbreak.”

Sadly, the fate of that whale is unknown. Perhaps it shook free of the netting; perhaps it died at sea and sank. What we do know is that plastics plague our oceans, and marine mammals pay the price. Every year, an estimated 300,000 dolphins, porpoises, and small whales are killed by entanglement in plastic fishing gear. Others ingest plastic trash, which fills their stomachs.

Last summer, Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) released a compelling report, The Plastics Plague: Marine Mammals and Our Oceans in Peril, that documents the crisis, provides information about the latest scientific research on the scale of the problem, and calls for bold, specific solutions to reduce marine plastic pollution and its devastating impacts on marine mammals.

The report delves into the challenges posed by plastic fishing gear in particular. While fishing nets and ropes were traditionally made of woven hemp and other natural fibers, modern gear is made from plastic. Plastic fishing gear is cheaper to produce and easier to use than the old gear, and has been used more and more to catch more fish.

Plastic nets and lines entangle marine mammals and other nontarget species, including endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale, the Hawaiian monk seal, the vaquita in the Gulf of California, and the Irrawaddy dolphin. In the US alone, 74 large whales are reported entangled in fishing gear on average every year, although many more may die and sink, their deaths going unrecorded. Globally, entanglement in plastic nets is the number one killer of marine mammals.

Bycatch of nontarget species is a plastics issue — unlike gear made from natural fibers, plastic gear does not decay when lost at sea. Instead, it persists in the ocean environment. Lost plastic nets continue to catch and kill fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, and other animals. Gillnets — which can be more than a mile long — are particularly dangerous.

Once plastic gear does ultimately start to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, it poses additional problems. “Microplastics” become tiny enough to enter the bloodstream of marine mammals, where they can leach toxic chemicals into the bodies of animals that ingest them.

Thankfully, the problem with plastic fishing gear is starting to get some of the attention it deserves in the US. Due to the advocacy of IMMP and other groups, last year Congress passed a major piece of legislation, the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, which will finally phase out, over a five-year period, the last drift gillnet fishery in the US — the San Diego-based shark and swordfish fishery. The legislation permits the use of alternative, non-entangling fishing gear by the industry.

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Late last year, Congress also enacted several major provisions to protect the oceans, including legislation that improves the monitoring of ocean noise, aims to prevent ship strikes on whales, bans the buying and selling of shark fins, and reauthorizes the US stranding program to help rehabilitate and release stranded and entangled marine mammals. IMMP, as part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act Coalition, was active in efforts to pass the legislation.

Policymakers are long overdue in addressing the ocean plastic pollution crisis, and there is still much work to be done, including banning gillnets altogether, implementing programs to retrieve derelict gear, enforcing bans on plastic dumping, and enacting plastic gear buyback programs. We demand that government bodies at every level take action to prevent plastics from entering the oceans and to remove the plastic that is already there.

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