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Wisdom Wednesday | Whales ingest millions particles of microplastics a day

Shore Buddies Wisdom Wednesday 1/25/23

Blue whales eat over 1 billion particles of microplastics over a feeding season with as-yet-unknown impacts on their health

Blue whales are consuming millions of particles of microplastics every day. According to a recent study, this makes them the largest consumers of plastic waste on our planet.

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The central estimate for blue whales was 10 Million pieces a day. This means that more than 1 billion pieces could be ingested over a three- to four-month feeding season. The weight of plastic consumed over the season is estimated at between 250kg and 4 tonnes for each whale.

In highly polluted areas those numbers were even higher. And if plastic pollution continues to rise in the future, the whales could be eating as much as 150 million pieces a day, the researchers warned. The data was collected in the coastal waters of California, but the scientists said other parts of the world are even more polluted.

“What we found was surprising – really high numbers of daily plastic ingestion,” said Dr Shirel Kahane-Rapport, at California State University, Fullerton, who led the study. “We imagine that it will have some sort of impact but we don’t know the exact health effects. This is the first step to figuring this out.”

The whales are harmed by the microplastics and the toxic chemicals they carry, and previous work has found plastic-derived contaminants have been identified in their blubber. These mammals are still recovering from the whaling trade and face other human-caused impacts such as noise and ship strikes besides ocean plastic pollution.

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“It’s a sad story about whales, but also it’s a story about us,” Savoca said, as human diets are also affected. “Whether it’s cod or salmon or other fish, they are eating those same fish that the whales are eating.”

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, combines a series of measurements to estimate the whales’ microplastics consumption. Tags on 191 blue, fin and humpback whales recorded more than 36,000 feeding lunges by the whales.

Huge amounts of plastic waste are entering the environment and microplastics have polluted the our oceans from coastline and beaches t to the deepest trenches of the oceans. At least 1,500 wild species have been reported to ingest plastic. People also consume the tiny particles via food and water as well as breathing them in. Microplastics were revealed to be present in most human blood samples as of March 2022.

Humpback whales, which are smaller than blue whales, were estimated to swallow up to 4 million particles of microplastics each day when feeding on krill and 200,000 particles when feeding on fish.

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However, the researchers even think that their estimates are conservative, as plastic pollution will have increased since the data was collected and they made conservative estimates of how much plastic the prey species of krill and fish consume.

While plastic pollution is still on the rise, it really is up to us to stop it where we can. Make sure to avoid single use plastic where ever you can. Plastic does not decompose and instead breaks down into little pieces. Bring a re-usable bag when grocery shopping and do not use single use plastic cutlery for your food. Be part of the solution rather than part of the pollution. Our Emma the Whale will thank you for your smart choices. She knows how bad it is for our Oceans. 

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