A sperm whale washed up dead on the shores of Hawaii with a stomach full of plastic waste including fishing gear and nets.
High tide carried the 56ft marine mammal into shore on January 28 after it was spotted floating off a reef near the island of Kauai the day before.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement released on Saturday that the ingested plastic debris was ‘at least a contributing cause to its death’.
The team charged with undertaking an evaluation of the whale’s physical condition spent 15 hours trying to uncover clues from its remains.
Dr Kristi West, director of the archipelago state’s Health and Stranding Lab, said: ‘A major finding 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 amounts of at least seven types of fishing net, at least two types of plastic bags, a light protector, fishing line and a float from a net.’
She added: ‘This mammal had a huge stomach, so we were not able to examine its full expanse, which is why we think that it’s likely there was additional material we didn’t recover.’
Researchers were ‘surprised and sad’ at their findings.
West stressed that while the incident was ‘heartbreaking’, it was important to learn as much as possible from the ocean giant’s death in order to better understand manmade threats sperm whales and other species face in Hawaii’s waters.
She said: ‘This was a rare and unique opportunity to document what may have contributed to the animal’s death.
‘We are only able to examine a small number of our dolphins and whales that die in our waters, and we think that each individual we are able to examine represents as many as 20 other animals, who are unlikely to ultimately die from these types of impacts.’
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every year as a result of plastic pollutants in the world’s oceans.
One of the most damaging types of pollution, according to the organisation, is ‘ghost gear’ – abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear.
WWF has previously said: ‘Plastics can take hundreds of thousands of years to decompose and wreak havoc on the environment in the meantime.
‘Ghost gear can continue to catch any marine species in its path for years, potentially decimating important food sources as well as endangered species, such as whales, dolphins, seabirds and turtles.
WWF added: ‘Marine plastic pollution damages vital ocean habitats and poses dangers to navigation and livelihoods.’
At least 14 million tons of plastic find their way into the world’s waters every year, accounting for 80% of all debris found from the shallowest waters to the deepest ocean beds.
In fact, a 2016 dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the planet’s lowest point – encountered a plastic bag floating in the gloom at more than 36,000 feet below sea level.
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