It has happened in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Spain: whales washing up on beaches, dead or dying, their stomachs stuffed with plastic refuse. And now, another casualty has been reported in Sardinia, Italy, where a young female sperm whale was found dead with more than 48 pounds of plastic in her stomach, according to CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore. Compounding the tragedy, the whale was pregnant.
She had washed ashore on a beach in Porto Cervo, a popular seaside resort, and was “in an advanced state of decomposition,” according to the World Wildlife Fund. The cause of death has yet to be officially determined, Luca Bittau, president of the conservation group SeaMe Sardinia, tells Mezzofiore. But inside the whale’s remains was a slew of plastic debris, including garbage bags, fishing nets, tubes and a washing machine liquid package that still had a visible barcode, Bittau said. The whale’s fetus, he added, “had almost certainly aborted before [she] beached.”
The fetus stretched to about six feet in length, and the mother was more than 26 feet long, reports Live Science’s Kimberly Hickok. When it comes to sperm whales, the largest of all toothed whale species, that is not particularly big; fully grown females can span up to 36 feet and weigh up to 14 tons, while males have been known to grow to 59 feet in length and weigh up to 45 tons. The WWF notes, in fact, that “the proportion between the size of the [dead female whale] and the ingested plastic is particularly significant.” Normally, such large quantities of refuse are usually seen in the bellies of bigger animals.
The amount of plastic pollution in marine environments is staggering. It has been estimated that more than five trillion pieces of plastic float through the world’s oceans, and whales are not the only animals that are threatened. Birds, turtles, fish and other marine species eat plastic debris, mistaking it for food, which in turns clogs their stomachs and makes them feel chronically full, leading to malnutrition and starvation. Animals get entangled in plastic litter, which can injure or suffocate them. Last year, results from a four-year study suggested that plastic pollution leads to an increased risk of infection in coral reefs, threatening the habitat of many marine species. What’s more, most plastics don’t decompose; they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, which pose their own risks to sea creatures.
Europe is the world’s second-largest producer of plastics after China, and a WWF report published last June found that it is guilty of “dumping 150,000-500,000 tonnes of macroplastics and 70,000-130,000 tonnes of microplastics in the sea every year.” According to the New York Times’ Iliana Magra, the report was one factor that prompted the European Union Parliament to vote for a ban on many single-use plastic items—among them plates, cutlery, straws and cotton bud sticks—that is due to go into effect across the EU by 2021.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Sergio Costa, Italy's environment minister, cited the death of the sperm whale as an example of why it is important to take steps to combat plastic pollution in the ocean, and vowed that Italy would be among the first countries to implement the European Parliament’s ban.
“We’ve used the ‘comfort’ of disposable objects in a lighthearted way in the past years and now we are paying the consequences,” he wrote, per CNN’s Mezzofiore. “[T]he animals, above all, are the ones paying them.”