Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

How a Small Piece of Plastic Wrap Likely Killed a Harp Seal

Animals
How a Small Piece of Plastic Wrap Likely Killed a Harp Seal
Juvenile harp seal. Virginia State Parks / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A young harp seal that washed up dead on the Scottish Isle of Skye last Friday likely died of health complications after ingesting a small piece of plastic wrap, according to scientists who examined the animal.

Scientists with the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS) performed a necropsy on the animal and described it as an "unusual case" in a Facebook post Wednesday. First, Scotland is outside of the normal range for the Arctic harp seal. Secondly, death from plastic ingestion is rare for seals.


"Plastic ingestion in cetaceans and seals is really rare," veterinary pathologist and SMASS head Andrew Brownlow told National Geographic, noting that entanglement from fishing nets or lines is usually the cause of most deaths. "They're intelligent animals that seem to be able to distinguish between plastic and prey."

Brownlow, who wrote the Facebook post, said "it is plausible this hungry pup mistook this small bit of floating plastic for food."

The seal was likely under a year old and its carcass appeared autolyzed, dehydrated and emaciated. "We saw evidence of sepsis, no gross of trauma, a low parasite burden and it hadn't fed recently," Bronlow wrote, which indicates that the plastic was not the direct cause but potentially led to a number of health complications.

During the necropsy, the scientists found a 2-inch piece of compacted plastic wrap lodged in its stomach. They determined the fragment had been stuck in place for some time and blocked the stomach's pyloric sphincter, which empties into the intestines, meaning the debris likely prevented the stomach from emptying.

"Once in the stomach, it would not be broken down, and became partially lodged in the narrow opening into the intestine," Brownlow wrote. "A healthy fit pup would probably have been able to safely manage ingesting a fragment of plastic this size, but in an already compromised animal it could have been influential in its death."

Harp seals, which are not endangered, are usually found in the northern hemisphere. However, it's not impossible for the highly migratory species to wander south. Brownlow told National Geographic that the animal could have been born in northern Norway but ended up in Scottish waters because it might have been lost or was following other seals or prey.

In the Facebook post, he also suggested that climate change could be a factor: "As with all ice-associated marine mammals there is concern as to the impacts from global climate warming and the extent and seasonal duration of sea ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere. Pinnipeds such as the harp seal that are dependent on sea ice for pupping, molting and resting are likely to be heavily impacted by future changes in their sea ice habitats."

Brownlow noted that the seal's unfortunate death is "yet another reminder of the impact of plastic pollution in the marine environment."

"We are in the process of running additional tests," he added, "but this case again highlights the problem of marine debris floating around in our oceans—for a weakened seal pup such as this, even a piece of plastic the size of a sweet wrapper is potentially fatal."

Plastic bails, left, and aluminum bails, right, are photographed at the Green Waste material recovery facility on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in San Jose, California. Aric Crabb / Digital First Media / Bay Area News via Getty Images

By Courtney Lindwall

Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth's resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried. We've carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceans, lakes, soils, and bodies.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Rise and Resist activist group marched together to demand climate and racial justice. Steve Sanchez / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Alexandria Villaseñor

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.

Read More Show Less
Trending
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a pair of climate-related secretarial orders on Friday, April 16. U.S. Department of the Interior

By Jessica Corbett

As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.

Read More Show Less
David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less