HONOLULU – (AP) – A whale that washed ashore in Hawaii over the weekend likely died in part because it ate large amounts of fish traps, fishing nets, plastic bags and other marine debris, scientists said Thursday, emphasizing the threat posed to wildlife by the Millions of tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year.
The body of the 56-foot (17-meter) long, 120,000-pound (54,431-kilogram) animal was first noticed on a reef off Kauai on Friday. The tide brought it ashore on Saturday.
Kristi West, director of the University of Hawaii Health and Stranding Laboratory, said there were enough foreign objects in the opening of the whale’s intestinal tract to block food.
“The presence of undigested fish and squid is further evidence of a blockage,” she said in a news release from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The whale’s stomach contained six hagfish traps, seven types of fishing nets, two types of plastic bags, a sunscreen, fishing line and a net float. The researchers also found squid beaks, fish skeletons and the remains of other prey in the whale’s stomach.
It’s the first known case of a sperm whale in Hawaiian waters ingesting discarded fishing gear, West said.
The whale’s stomach was so large that West’s team was unable to fully examine it. They suspect there was more material they couldn’t recover.
The researchers found nothing wrong with other organs they examined. They collected samples to examine for diseases and do other follow-up tests.
Sperm whales travel thousands of miles in the ocean, so it’s not clear where the debris came from.
Scientists say that more than 35 million tons (31.9 million tons) of plastic pollution is produced on Earth every year, and about a quarter of that ends up in water.
Marine debris harms numerous species.
Seabirds can ingest up to 8% of their body weight in plastic. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles can become entangled in plastic nets and die. Sharks and other apex predators eat smaller fish that feed on microplastics, which can then endanger their own health.
Aside from eating plastic, large whales are injured when they become entangled in fishing gear or other ropes in the ocean. Drag from debris can force whales to expend more energy swimming and make it harder for them to eat, leading to starvation.
On Tuesday, marine mammal rescuers rescued a humpback whale that was entangled in a rope, a bundle of gear and two buoys off the Big Island.
Sperm whales are an endangered species found in deep oceans around the world. A 2021 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that there are about 4,500 sperm whales in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands from the Big Island in the south to Kure Atoll in the north.
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