Last week, a small male pilot whale was found struggling, unable to swim or breathe, in a Thai canal near the Malaysia border. Rescuers fought to save the animal by deploying buoys to keep it afloat as veterinarians tended to it and propped up red umbrellas to protect its exposed skin from the sun’s rays.
The whale vomited up five plastic bags during the rescue attempt. It died on Friday, five days after the attempt began.
A necropsy revealed that more than 17 pounds of plastic had clogged up the whale’s stomach, making it impossible for it to ingest nutritional food. This waste was in the form of 80 shopping bags and other plastic debris.
“We have no idea how many animals aren’t showing up on a beach,” Asmutis-Silvia says. “This is one pilot whale, this doesn’t consider other species. It’s symbolic at best, but it’s symbolic of an incredibly significant problem.”
Experts say the whale most likely mistook the plastic bags as food. Accumulation of trash could have tricked the animal into thinking it was full, reducing its instinct to feed. Malnourished, the whale then became sick and unable to hunt.
“At some point their stomach fills up with trash and they can’t eat real food,” Asmutis-Silvia says. “You’re not getting any nutrients in and you’ve basically completely clogged your digestive system.”
Plastic pollution is a consistent problem in the world’s oceans. In Thai waters, more than 300 marine animals are known to die after eating plastic. The list includes pilot whales, but also sea turtles and dolphins. In April, an emaciated sperm whale was found dead on a Spanish beach with more than 60 pounds of trash in its digestive system. On Friday, a harp seal pup washed ashore with a small plastic film in its gut, a rare case because seals generally don’t mistake plastic for food.
Last month, the Bangkok Post reported the Thai government was considering putting a tax on plastic shopping bags to cut down on plastic consumption and pollution. In 2017, Thailand reported it produced 27.4 million tons of waste, 2 million of which consisted of plastic.
Around the world, about 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flow into our oceans each year. The average American throws away about 185 pounds annually, but doing little things can help to cut down on that number. Foregoing plastic bags and bottles, skipping straws, and avoiding items packaged in plastic are some tips. Recycling and not littering are also some ways to reduce your plastic waste.
Asmutis-Silvia says whales play an integral role as “ocean gardeners,” fertilizing their ecosystems. In killing whales, we’re harming the rest of the ecosystem and, in turn, ourselves. In polluting our oceans, we’re also polluting the fish we eat and might be ingesting plastic ourselves.
“It should be a huge red flag for us as a species,” Asmutis-Silvia says, “that we need to stop killing ourselves.”