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Floating Marine Debris Can Be Deadly for Cetaceans

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Thanks to increased awareness about the environment, most people know that tossing garbage into the ocean is just wrong. Unfortunately, plastic marine debris is still common, and deadly to marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. If you needed another reason to stop throwing your garbage into the ocean, this news from the Marine Pollution Bulletin might make you think twice: in 2014, 56 percent of whales, dolphins and porpoises swallowed a piece of plastic.

Ingesting plastic can be very dangerous for marine mammals, even deadly. A fragment of a plastic DVD case killed one whale in Virginia last August, one of many casualties caused by plastic.

"It makes me very sad that a piece of plastic that was not disposed of properly ended up killing a whale. It was a preventable death," said Susan Barco, who works at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Stranding Response Team.

According to the Marine Pollution Bulletin report, some species of cetaceans ingest plastic at rates as high as 31 percent. Up to 22 percent of cetaceans that swallowed plastic were at an increased risk of death. Plastic can rupture the stomach lining of these animals, causing them to starve to death.

Sperm whales are especially vulnerable to plastic debris, because it bears a strong resemblance to squid, their main prey. Frances Gulland, who works at the Marine Mammal Center in California, said that almost every sperm whale she autopsied had a piece of plastic in its stomach.

Jacob Gónzalez Solís, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, released a statement about the harmful nature of plastic in the ocean.

"Plastic floats and is difficult to degrade. Eventually, all pollutants which are not destroyed on land arrive to the sea. The sea is not a rubbish bin. The control over plastic production and transportation at industrial level has probably improved, but there is an urgent need to develop stricter controls on waste dumping and prohibit ships' discharge into the sea," Solís said.

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