33 Foot Whale Dies From Eating Rubbish

garbage-oceanThis is a true and very sad rubbish clearance story. While this particular incident is certainly a case of “a picture is worth a thousand words” (or more!), we hope that our words give ammunition to those who are working toward positive change to keep our waste removal out of our oceans.

A Gruesome Ghastly Sight

Usually, the sight of a majestic sperm whale is such a magical moment, most people try to freeze frame the image in their mind. In fact, many people stop breathing momentarily they are so excited to see such a magnificent creature! However, this was not the reaction people had on February 27 when a thirty-three foot, totally emaciated, sperm whale washed up dead on Cabo de Palos Beach in southwestern Spain. It was not at all a wondrous sight… it was a gruesome ghastly sight… one of those images that people would prefer to block from their mind but can’t no matter how hard they try!

The sight of this gigantic creature, lying there dead, the life sucked out of it from eating our rubbish clearance, is heartbreaking to everyone who has viewed the scene either in person or via picture. It sent shock waves across the environmental community. Many shared images of the ghostly dead sperm whale on social media. All who saw it seemed utterly horrified, many vowing to do something about it. The mantra seemed to be “Shame on us for allowing this to happen!”

The deceased sperm whale, a juvenile male, weighed in at 6.5 metric tonnes (14,330 pounds, 5900 kilograms). While this may seem massive to a human weighting a mere 175 pounds, it is about seven times less than what male sperm whales usually weigh. He weighed so much less than a juvenile male sperm whale is supposed to weigh, the idiomatic expression, “he was skin and bones,” would not even begin to cover his physical state. It was quite obvious from the pictures that he literally starved to death.

Cause of such a grueling death

Experts at the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Centre  determined that his stomach and intestines were filled with twenty-nine kilograms (sixty-four pounds) of garbage! These included discarded cans, netting, ropes, and plastic bags. With all this rubbish clearance compacting his digestive system, he could not digest real food and he starved to death. In addition, he had a severe stomach infection, most likely because one of the rubbish clearance items he swallowed ripped a tear in his stomach lining.

The pain and torture this young sperm whale must have endured before he finally died and washed ashore to shame humanity must have been extensive. How unjust it is to this creature to not only die but actually die in a way that was very likely slow and tremendously painful.

What do we as humans owe his species for the sin of his death? Should his death be the impetus to do more to rid our oceans of rubbish removal? Should we plaster this image of this whales lifeless emaciated body on anti-litter posters even though it makes us feel awkward and ashamed to see it?

Sperm Whale – A Magnificent Creature

Sperm whales have been forever immortalized in the great novel, Moby Dick, so they will live for eternity on in the human psyche even if they go extinct. However, unlike the dinosaurs that roamed our planet before our time, and went extinct long before we made our great migration out of Africa into the fertile crescent, sperm whales have shared our planet for all of human history.

Many members of our species have come eye to eye with this beast and we must answer for our crimes of littering that has been proven to be the direct cause of this whales death, and in fact, threatens his entire species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the conservation status of sperm whales as “vulnerable” which is only one small step away from becoming endangered — and some experts actually argue that sperm whales are already endangered. While it is impossible to do an accurate census of sperm whales, scientists estimate there about 200,000 of these whales left. Keep in mind, there used to be many millions of them in our oceans but they were a favorite of whaling expeditions who hunted them for their valuable blubber, meat, and even their bones.

Sperm whales are now protected under international law so most countries no longer hunt them. However, the Japanese still have a taste for sperm whale and several are harvested for supposed “scientific research” every year. The whale meat from these scientific specimens does get sold in Japanese markets. However, even given this loophole in the law that protects sperm whales, the direct human harvesting of sperm whales pales in comparison to how threatening our rubbish clearance is to the endurance of this species.

Time for Introspection

The sperm whale that washed up dead on Cabo de Palos Beach is only one of many who have died due to eating rubbish clearance. Plastic bags are the biggest culprit but all rubbish in our oceans poses a dire threat to sperm whales and other marine mammals. What we do about our rubbish clearance problem over the next few decades will likely determine the fate of this entire species and many other marine mammals.

The stomach and intestines of sperm whale was filled with 29 kg of garbage

It is important to note how intelligent sperm whales are though to be. Sperm whales have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom, weighing in at five times that of the human brain, with an imposing volume of eight thousand cubic centimeters! They’re also known to express obvious emotions. What would they say to use if we could somehow crack the sperm whale language code? Would they beg us to remove our rubbish from their habitat? Would they appeal to our better angels?

Identifying the Enemies

Sperm whales eat mostly “garden variety” squid, less than a foot in length, but in an ironic twist, their worst enemy is thought to be the giant squid. These colossal squid are usually between ten to thirteen metres (33 to 43 feet). Serrated sucker scars from these ginormous squid are often found on sperm whale bodies. While sperm whales may eat these giant squid, they put up a good fight at minimum and may even be able to kill, or at least harm significantly, a sperm whale at times.

However, the rubbish clearance that we as humans fill our oceans with cause more damage to sperm whales than all the giant squid in the world. We must face the hard reality that our rubbish clearance is directly responsible for the death of sperm whales, and many other marine mammals, and many other animal species for that matter. We must own up to that fact and start seriously working toward finding solutions.

If you have pictures of sperm whales, please send them to Clearabee’s Facebook page in honor of the most recent sperm whale death at the hands of our rubbish clearance. Clearabee is the leading on demand rubbish clearance company in the UK. Clearabee is very supportive of conservation projects that involve protecting our planet and wildlife from the destructive forces of our rubbish clearance.

Plastic Packaging Waste in the Philippines: An Analysis

I recently took a 5-month break from my work as an environmental consultant to volunteer with Marine Conservation Philippines (MCP) on the issue of marine litter. During the first few months of my stint there, we undertook an intense programme of beach cleans across sections of a small sample of local beaches. The idea was to find out what kinds of material were most prevalent, to inform the types of local initiative we could set up to try and tackle the issues. Consistently, the vast majority of the debris we found strewn across the beaches was plastic; a significant amount of that was soft plastics which can’t be recycled – plastic bags, sweet and crisp packets, and single use soap and detergent sachets. There were some variations, though: at one beach, we kept picking up a staggering amount of styrofoam.

During our beach clean work and engagement with local communities, it became increasingly apparent that part of the problem was the variability of waste management across the municipality of Zamboanguita, in the Negros Oriental province of the Philippines. Despite national legislation, some areas received no formal waste collections at all. With the help of the local Coastal Resources Manager, Tony Yocor, we began to engage with the local municipality’s Solid Waste Manager with the view to supporting appropriate an affordable waste management practices.

We focused on solutions that have been successful elsewhere in the Philippines and in other emerging markets, such as the local collection and waste sorting approach developed by Mother Earth Foundation. Unfortunately, as with most places in the world, influencing the authorities to act takes time, and whilst we started to make some progress, Tony and the staff at MCP are still working on trying to get the full range of local solutions we identified implemented.

Materials and markets

We did, however, build our own ‘MRF’ (more of a community recycling centre in UK terms) at MCP’s base to improve the management of the waste we collected. The main aim of the site is to allow as many recyclable materials as possible to be segregated so that they can be sold to the local junk shops. We also hope that this can act as a demonstration site for the types of simple solutions that can be set up locally to improve waste management.

But ultimately, if we are serious about tackling this issue of marine debris, we have to reduce the amount of litter we produce, and many countries are making progress on tackling commonly littered items. Restrictions on single use carrier bags are amongst the most prominent and widespread anti-littering measures around the world.

England’s 5p carrier bag levy was introduced in 2015 and, despite its limitations, is reducing bag usage and (it would seem) marine litter. Last year Kenya hit the headlines when it joined the growing list of countries adopting a rather stricter line: it banned plastic carrier bags entirely, with offenders risking heavy fines or even imprisonment.

Although bans and restrictions are becoming increasingly widespread, they have not yet reached the Philippines at a national level and it seems no coincidence that a large proportion of the items we found littered on our sample beaches around Zamboanguita were plastic bags. One beach, close to where the largest ‘ghetto’ market is held weekly, had a particularly high incidence of plastic bag litter, and the quantity increased noticeably on, and just after, market day.

Without national instruments in place, we explored what could be done with the policy powers available to the local government. Working with the local Markets Officer and Coastal Resources Manager we put the wheels in motion to propose and implement a local ordinance to introduce a charge on plastic bags, initially at the market as a trial, with the potential for a wider roll-out if successful. It’s a model that could be reapplied elsewhere in the Philippines if national legislation isn’t forthcoming.

Sachet and sea?

Plastic bags are a challenge, but because they’re distributed locally it’s relatively easy to change practices. Other forms of single use packaging contribute just as much to the litter problem afflicting many South East Asian counties, but are harder to tackle because their source is more remote.

The Philippines, like many developing and emerging economies, is a ‘sachet economy’, with a huge range of products sold in one-portion, single-use sachets. You see them everywhere, from small ‘sari sari’ stalls to large shopping centres. The producers’ perspective is that this form of packaging represents a form of social responsibility, allowing them to provide safe, long-lasting, affordable products that meet people’s needs. However, they have a wider cost.

Sachet society: one of the most common forms of litter in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Amy Slack.

I was involved in Break Free from Plastic Negros Oriental’s December beach clean and audit, and these sachets were the most common item we found. They accounted for a massive 25% of the items picked up from Dumaguete beach, beating plastic bags into second place (13%). The waste management system in the Philippines simply isn’t geared up to dealing with this increasingly popular type of packaging – the composite materials of which they are made are impractical to recycle and so lack the economic value that engages the interest of the informal sector. So, what could be done to help?

The Best Foot Forward

There is no ‘silver bullet’ to instantly lay marine litter to rest. Even if there was a global ban on single use plastics today, it would take time for already littered material to blow or wash its way through the system. However, introducing a compulsory extended producer responsibility (EPR) mechanism into policy could help end the blame game that currently impedes action: producers blame the general public for littering, the general public blame the government for inadequate waste systems, and government blames produces for manufacturing plastic packaging.

An EPR scheme would see government giving clear responsibilities to business, and ensuring that producers fund collection and reprocessing schemes to properly manage the waste from the products they sell in the Philippines. That would in turn incentivise producers to use more easily recyclable packaging, as the costs of managing this material would be lower. The goal need not be to try to ape the waste management systems of the West, which may not be suitable in the circumstances. And in the Philippines, where labour is cheap and informal waste management thrives, it may take little more than giving a small value to packaging products to greatly reduce the amount of material that escapes into the environment.

Conclusion

Although countries like the Philippines currently struggle most to cope with the consequences of plastic packaging waste, with the right set of policies and determined volunteers to help organise local action, there is scope for them to catch up and overhaul the West in developing solutions that really do reduce litter.

Note: The article has been republished with the permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original version of the article can be found at this link