Whales and Dolphins Found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the First Time
By Chandra Salgado Kent
Scientific research doesn't usually mean being strapped in a harness by the open paratroop doors of a Vietnam-war-era Hercules plane. But that's the situation I found myself in several years ago, the result of which has just been published in the journal Marine Biodiversity.
When the aircraft's doors opened in front of me over the Pacific Ocean for the first time, my heart jumped into my throat. Not because I was looking 400m straight down to the wild sea below as it passed at 260km per hour, but because of what I saw.
This was one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, and the amount of floating plastic nets, ropes, containers and who-knows-what below was mind-boggling.
However, it wasn't just debris down there. For the first time, we found proof of whales and dolphins in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which means it's highly likely they are eating or getting tangled in the huge amount of plastic in the area.
A passive garbage collector floating through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. EPA / THE OCEAN CLEANUP HANDOUT
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. It is located between Hawaii and California, where huge ocean currents meet to form the North Pacific subtropical gyre. An estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Our overall project was overseen and led by The Ocean Cleanup's founder Boyan Slat and then-chief scientist Julia Reisser. We conducted two visual survey flights, each taking an entire day to travel from San Francisco's Moffett Airfield, survey for around two hours, and travel home. Along with our visual observations, the aircraft was fitted with a range of sensors, including a short-wave infrared imager, a Lidar system (which uses the pulse from lasers to map objects on land or at sea), and a high-resolution camera.
Both visual and technical surveys found whales and dolphins, including sperm and beaked whales and their young calves. This is the first direct evidence of whales and dolphins in the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Mating green turtles in a sea of plastics. Photo by Chandra P. Salgado Kent, author provided
Plastics in the ocean are a growing problem for marine life. Many species can mistake plastics for food, consume them accidentally along with their prey or simply eat fish that have themselves eaten plastic.
Both beaked and sperm whales have been recently found with heavy plastic loads in their stomachs. In the Philippines, a dying beaked whale was found with 40kg of plastic in its stomach, and in Indonesia, a dead sperm whale washed ashore with 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops and more than 1,000 pieces of string in its stomach.
The Danger of Ghost Nets
The most common debris we were able to identify by eye was discarded or lost fishing nets, often called "ghost nets." Ghost nets can drift in the ocean for years, trapping animals and causing injuries, starvation and death.
Crew sorts plastic debris collected from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on a voyage in July 2019. EPA / THE OCEAN CLEANUP
Whales and dolphins are often found snared in debris. Earlier this year, a young sperm whale almost died after spending three years tangled in a rope from a fishing net.
During our observation we saw young calves with their mothers. Calves are especially vulnerable to becoming trapped. With the wide range of ocean plastics in the garbage patch, it is highly likely animals in the area ingest and become tangled in it.
It's believed the amount of plastics in the ocean could triple over the next decade. It is clear the problem of plastic pollution has no political or geographic boundaries.
A jellyfish entangled in plastic rubbish and ropes in the North Pacific Ocean. AAP Image / The Algalita Marine Research Foundation
The most devastating effects fall on communities in poverty. New research shows the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly growing, posing a greater threat to wildlife. It reinforces the global movement to reduce, recycle and remove plastics from the environment.
But to really tackle this problem we need creative solutions at every level of society, from communities to industries to governments and international organizations.
To take one possibility, what if we invested in fast-growing, sustainably cultivated bamboo to replace millions of single-use plastics? It could be produced by the very countries most affected by this crisis: poorer and developing nations.
Chandra Salgado Kent is an associate professor at the School of Science, Edith Cowan University.
Disclosure statement: Chandra Salgado Kent does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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