Plastic bags. Rope. Pieces of nets. A drum. These items were among 64 pounds of trash found in the digestive tract of a juvenile sperm whale that recently washed ashore in southern Spain.
As Lorraine Chow reports for EcoWatch, the unfortunate whale was found dead on a beach in Spain’s Murcia region in February. When researchers at the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center carried out a necropsy, they found that the whale’s stomach and intestines were filled with garbage, much of it plastic. According to Andrea Diaz of CNN, researchers think that the whale died of peritonitis, an infection of the abdomen; the marine mammal was unable to digest and expel the plastic waste it had consumed, leading to a lethal rupture in its digestive system.
The 33-foot long whale was “unusually thin” when it was found, Diaz reports.
The creature’s death offers yet another unfortunate reminder of the dire impact of pollution on marine ecosystems. In 2015, scientists estimated that there was 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the world's ocean. In 2017, the UN reported that the ocean held as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles. This poses a dire risk to wildlife who can get tangled in plastic debris, ingest it and suffocate on it. Earlier this year, results from a four-year study found that plastic pollution might lead to an increased risk of infection in coral reefs, threatening the habitat of many marine animals.
In Murcia, revelations about the death of the sperm whale have spurred officials to action. According to Fiona Govan of the Local, the regional government is now working with the European Environmental Association and the European Fund for Regional Development to protect the area’s marine life. An awareness campaign will encourage residents to dispose of their garbage responsibly and to join efforts to clean up beaches along the coast. Officials also plan to establish a research program that will monitor plastic pollution and its impact on sea creatures.
“The presence of plastics in seas and oceans is one of the biggest threats to the conservation of wildlife in the world,” Consuelo Rosauro, Murcia’s regional government’s environment minister, said in a statement announcing the campaign. “The Murcia region is no stranger to this problem that we must tackle by way of clean-up actions and, above all, awareness of citizens.”