In May, a 47-foot-long adult male sperm whale washed up in the Florida Keys. The magnificent animal, which usually lives in deeper waters offshore, was emaciated.
After being stranded in the shallow waters around the Mud Keys, north of Key West, he died. A necropsy revealed that a tangled mass of plastic bags, fishing lines and tattered fishing nets had blocked the whale’s stomach, preventing it from absorbing nutrients. The gnarled mass of plastic debris starved the whale to death.
This tragedy is appalling on many levels, and it is not an isolated event. Our addiction to plastic and our inability to tackle derelict fishing gear, also known as ghost gear, has made our oceans inhospitable to vast swathes of iconic marine life, including whales, dolphins, fish, turtles and manatees. .
It is estimated that a single abandoned net kills an average of 500,000 marine invertebrates, 1,700 fish and four seabirds. Over time, ghost gear breaks down into microplastics, which release toxic chemicals into the marine food chain. Ocean Conservancy studies have found ghost gear to be the most harmful form of plastic pollution.
The loss of this sperm whale should be a revelation to many, and its death should raise the question of why we aren’t doing more to protect our ocean from the choking marine debris.
Individual actions, which include ditching single-use plastics and participating in beach cleanups, are important and welcome. But to stop us from drowning in marine debris, we need visionary and comprehensive efforts to address the issue of plastic and ghost gear.
In national coastal regions like Florida where the whale died, more emphasis needs to be placed on transitioning to a circular plastic economy that eliminates reliance on virgin plastics and avoids single-use plastic items while emphasizing reuse and recycling.
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An obvious place to make progress would be in Tallahassee by empowering local governments to regulate single-use plastics in their local jurisdictions. As it stands, the legislature has blocked local governments from doing so, but failed to act to address the marine plastic problem.
Nationally, we need action from business leaders to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of their packaging and commit to reducing the amount of plastic packaging single use in their operations. This should prioritize non-recyclable plastics, which account for 70% of all debris polluting our beaches and waterways, according to 35 years of data from the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.
We need to build capacity to help fishers prevent the loss of fishing gear and facilitate the cleanup of ghost gear. We need initiatives such as gear tagging and recycling, as recommended by the Ocean Conservancy’s Global Ghost Gear Initiative Best Practices Framework.
At the international level, we need wide adoption of the “Global Plastics Instrument”, which sets a map for countries to work together to address the effects of plastics on the environment and social justice, to production to disposal. Collaborating countries should advocate for the inclusion of ghost gear in the “Plastics Treaty”, a legally binding agreement to address pollution, especially in the marine environment.
We shouldn’t have to accept these tragic losses of marine life due to plastic pollution. The global ocean plastics crisis is one we created, and it is one we have the power to solve.
Jon Paul “JP” Brooker is the Florida Conservation Director for Ocean Conservancy. Ingrid Giskes is Senior Director of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and International Government Relations for Ocean Conservancy. Nicholas Mallos is the Senior Director of the Trash Free Seas Program for Ocean Conservancy.
This article first appeared in the Miami Herald, part of the Invading Sea Collaboration of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by global warming.