OCEAN CITY — While it is widely known plastic in the ocean and other waterways can have a devastating effect on marine life, a comprehensive report released this week documents the damage.
A report released this week by the environmental advocacy group Oceana calls for stronger policies to reduce production and distribution of single-use plastic. Oceana surveyed dozens of government agencies, organizations and institutions around the country, including the mid-Atlantic, that collect data on the impact of plastic on marine animals to compile the alarming report.
The survey found evidence of roughly 1,800 animals from 40 different species swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic. Of those 1,800, about 88% were species listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.
Those statistics are likely conservative because they highlight documented cases where marine animals were found deceased and their deaths attributed to ingesting or becoming entangled with plastic, or animals that were discovered entangled and rescued. The data does not include those marine animals killed by ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic and are never documented, according to report author Christ Leavitt, who serves as Oceana plastics campaign director.
“This report is merely a snapshot of what’s happening to the animals inhabiting plastic-polluted waters around the U.S.,” she said. “Imagine how great the numbers would be if they included the animals not observed or documented by humans.”
The report’s intent is to raise awareness about the dangers of single-use plastic that finds its ways into the ocean and other waterways, according to report author and senior Oceana scientist Dr. Kimberly Warner.
“Before now, the evidence that many U.S. marine mammals and sea turtles were being harmed by plastic was not compiled in one place,” she said. “While there may never be a complete account of the fate of all marine animals impacted by plastic, this report paints a grim picture.”
Bags, balloons, recreational fishing line, and food wrappers were the most common types of identifiable plastic consumed by the impacted animals. Bags, balloons with strings and sheeting were the most common types of plastic found entangling marine animals. Other items identified in the report included bottle caps, water bottles, straws, plastic chairs, plastic utensils, sandwich bags, polystyrene cups and kid’s toys.
Marine animals swallow plastic when they mistake it for food, or inadvertently swallow while feeding or swimming. Once swallowed, plastic can obstruct their digestion or lacerate their stomachs and intestines, which interfere with their ability to feed and often leads to starvation and death. The research determined some marine animals perish after ingesting just one small piece of plastic.
The harmful effects of plastic are not discriminatory. Nearly every species of ocean life is affected, especially sea turtles, seals, whales and other marine mammals. The report asserts 15 metric tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean every year. The equates to about two garbage trucks worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute.
“The world is hooked on plastic because the industry continues to find increasingly more ways to force this persistent pollutant into our everyday routines, and it’s choking, strangling and drowning marine life,” said Warner. “This report shows a wide range of single-use plastic jeopardizing marine animals, and it’s not just the items the first come to mind like bags, balloons and bottlecaps. These animals are consuming or being entangled in everything from zip-ties and dental floss to those mesh onion bags you see at the grocery store.”