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Update: 700 Marine Species Threatened by Plastic Debris

Feb 19, 2015 02:45 PM EST
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(Photo : Susan White/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

After researchers just announced that our oceans are riddled with eight million metric tons of plastic, a new comprehensive study found that nearly 700 marine species encounter and are threatened by such debris on a daily basis.

"The impact of debris on marine life is of particular concern, and effects can be wide reaching, with the consequence of ingestion and entanglement considered to be harmful," Sarah Gall, one of the researchers, said in a press release.

This latest research is the most detailed impact study on the marine debris issue in more than a decade. The results were published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

To reach their findings, a team from the University of Plymouth studied numerous incidents of entanglement, ingestion, physical damage to ecosystems and rafting - where species are transported by debris - around the globe. They found that a staggering 44,000 animals and organisms were either entangled in, or swallowed debris, with plastic accounting for nearly 92 percent of the cases.

This is extremely concerning to conservationists, especially when it comes to species that are threatened or near threatened, such as the Hawaiian monk seal, loggerhead turtle and sooty shearwater, according to the IUCN Red List. Other common victims of floating garbage are whales, dolphins and seabirds, which either mistake plastic bits for food or ingest it indirectly through their prey.

Plastic ingestion is fatal for these kinds of creatures because it can produce ulcers, infections, and even obstruct the animal's stomach or intestine, causing starvation and death. Entanglement, on the other hand, can lead to serious injuries in animals and also result in death. According to the study, plastic rope was a common culprit of such instances, involving northern right whales; green, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles; and the northern fulmar.

"And in nearly 80 percent of entanglement cases this had resulted in direct harm or death," Gall added. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NOAA)

In total, the researchers found that 693 species had been documented as having encountered debris, with nearly 400 involving entanglement and ingestion. Most incidents reportedly occurred off the east and west coasts of North America, as well as Australia and Europe.

Furthermore, plastic fragments were the highest recorded substance for ingestion, which should come as no surprise given that millions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. In this regard, the green sea turtle and northern fulmar again, the Laysan albatross, the Californian seal lion, the Atlantic puffin, and the greater shearwater were among the worst affected species.

Even more astonishing is the fact that marine species like those mentioned don't have to just worry about debris such as glass or plastic that they can see - they also have to watch out for what they can't see. Microplastics - microscopic particles of plastic debris - are also threatening the world's oceans.

They not only enter marine creatures' bodies by ingestion, by also via gills. This way, they take over six times longer to leave the body compared with standard digestion. This doesn't bode well for crustaceans like crabs, mollusks and fish. Even freshwater organisms have to worry about plastic particles.

"Encounters with marine debris are of particular concern for species that are recognized to be threatened," noted Richard Thompson, and expert on microplastics, "and with 17 percent of all species reported in the paper as near threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, it is evident that marine debris may be contributing to the potential for species extinction."

So the next time you go to throw out your plastic water bottle in the garbage instead of the recycling bin, remember that you may be directly contributing to the extinction of numerous marine species that call the oceans home.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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