The Tiniest Pieces of Plastic Are Threatening the Ocean’s Largest Creatures

Even though they’re smaller than 5 millimeters, microplastics are causing a huge problem for oceans and the environment. Most recently, scientists are concerned about the harm they’re causing the ocean’s largest creatures.

Despite their massive size, rays, whale sharks and baleen whales are particularly vulnerable to microplastic pollution. According to a new study published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, they’re consuming them at an alarming rate through both polluted water and prey.

These species are filter feeders who take in large quantities of water when feeding for smaller fish or plankton before straining the water back out, which puts them at serious risk of ingesting microplastics.

It’s difficult to study how much these large animals are consuming without directly examining their stomach contents, or excretions, but by sampling small amounts of tissue, researchers were able to test for chemical tracers.

The researchers estimated that whale sharks around Baja California peninsula may be ingesting 171 items on a daily basis, while fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea are believed to swallow thousands of microplastic particles every day.

As the researchers explained in a statement, this poses a big problem because these tiny pieces of plastic can cause internal damage and block nutrient absorption, while the chemicals in microplastics can accumulate and negatively impact growth, development and reproduction. This is particularly concerning considering that many of these species are already threatened.

“Despite the growing research on microplastics in the marine environment, there are only a few studies that examine the effects on large filter feeders. We are still trying to understand the magnitude of the issue. It has become clear though that microplastic contamination has the potential to further reduce the population numbers of these species, many of which are long-lived and have few offspring throughout their lives,” said Elitza Germanov, the study’s lead author who is a researcher at the Marine Megafauna Foundation and a PhD student at Murdoch University. “It is vital to understand the effects of microplastic pollution on ocean giants since nearly half of the mobulid rays, two thirds of filter-feeding sharks and over one quarter of baleen whales are listed by the IUCN as globally threatened species and are prioritized for conservation.”

Researchers hope their findings will lead to improved marine stewardship on our part, particularly in coastal areas that are considered important for these species.

“As plastic production is projected to increase globally, future research should focus on coastal regions where microplastic pollution overlaps with the critical feeding and breeding grounds of these threatened animals. Many areas are biodiversity hotspots and of economic importance due to fisheries and marine tourism. Targeting these with the backing of local government and industry will help ensure efforts to mitigate the plastic threat are employed to their fullest,” added Germanov.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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