Researchers in Hawaii say they are “surprised and saddened” to find plastic objects and other marine debris in the stomach of a 60-ton sperm whale that washed up on a reef at a Kauai park.
The whale carcass was discovered in Lydgate Park on January 27. Heavy equipment was used to transport it to the beach, where University of Hawaii researchers at the Mānoa Health and Stranding Lab spent 15 hours examining it and looking for clues as to what led to its death, the Hawaii Department said of Land and Natural Resources on Facebook.
An “important finding,” according to Dr. Kristi West, the director of the health and stranding laboratory, was “the number of manufactured items in the whale’s stomach”.
“In addition to squid beaks, fish skeletons and other prey remains, we found at least six hagfish traps and we also found significant quantities of at least seven types of fishing nets, at least two types of plastic bags, a sunscreen and fishing line, and a float made from a net,” West said. “We have found a number of things in the sperm whale’s stomach that may have contributed to its death and are certainly troubling.”
Due to the whale’s immense size, researchers were unable to examine the full stomach. West said this means there was likely “additional footage” that wasn’t seen. However, in the areas examined there was “certainly (a) a substantial amount of foreign matter to cause a blockage”.
West said this is the first time a sperm whale has exhibited “this type of ingestion of discarded gear and nets” in Hawaiian waters.
Edward “Luna” Kekoa, recreational fisheries program manager at DLNR’s Aquatic Resources Division, said the discovery should make people think twice about putting marine debris into the ocean. Because sperm whales travel thousands of miles, the DLNR says it’s impossible to determine where the items came from.
“These man-made objects stay in the ocean for a very long time, and we hope we can learn from them,” Kekoa said in the DLNR statement. “Every few days we hear about another whale, dolphin, turtle or monk seal becoming entangled in fishing gear or line. Let’s at least prevent more devices, plastic bags and other items from entering the system.”
There have been a number of whale deaths in the oceans around the United States recently.
On the East Coast, 10 dead whales have washed up on beaches in New York and New Jersey since December 2022. In January 2023, whale carcasses were found in Maryland, North Carolina And Mississippi. A sperm whale washed up on the west coast Oregon Beach and in Half Moon Bay, California.
There is no single cause for any of these deaths. Some speculated that whale deaths in the New York and New Jersey area were caused by offshore wind energy, but federal officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said they did have said there is no evidence to support this theory.
Between 2016 and 2022, 178 whales washed ashore between Maine and Florida. Lauren Gaches, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said CBS News in January 2023 that in about half of these cases autopsies were performed. Of those examined, 40% showed “human interactions” such as entanglements with fishing gear or been hit by a ship, Gaches said.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, over 14 million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris.