Plastic rubbish deadly to marine animals

2008-01-12 00:00

Did you know that your plastic wrapper could kill a dolphin?

Yes, it could and often does, according to Mark Addison, shark expert from the Shark Park in Rocky Bay on the KZN south coast.

Addison and other marine experts, speaking at the end of the Vodacom Beach Clean-up campaign this week, said projects of this sort are vital in the wake of festive celebrations.

Marine animals such as seabirds, turtles, dolphins and sharks end up with lethal hangovers after Christmas and New Year parties. Scientists say the most commonly bagged marine litter — cigarette butts, plastic cutlery, polystyrene cups, tin cans, food waste and plastic bags — upset the ecological balance at best. At worst, they are a lethal cocktail for marine animals.

Addison said dolphins are inquisitive and playful and often pick up seaweed and shells. They see plastic bags in the same way. More and more dolphins are dying after ingesting plastic, he said.

Sharks — many of them endangered — are as curious as dolphins and also suffer the effects of plastic bags. But unlike dolphins they can clear plastic bags out of their guts and tend to survive, he said.

Addison said his ocean forays have shown that the greatest danger to sharks is plastic packing tape that is usually wound around cardboard boxes and stapled. Sharks swim into these rigid nooses which often cut into the gills and kill them. He said he has captured sharks to free them of packaging tape, an experience they find traumatic.

"Seabirds, especially albatross, pick plastic out of the water and feed it to their young, which then suffer clogged stomachs. This often leads to death."

Another problem, according to Thomas P. Peschak, a marine biologist and author, is that plastic washes up in remote places. "Someone can throw something on the South African shoreline and it will travel with the currents, wash up and affect another country such as India or the Maldives. Beach litter fast becomes marine litter and can travel thousands of kilometres carrying alien species such as barnacles, crabs and molluscs to new territory, where they colonise and possibly overwhelm local marine ecosystems."

The clean-up campaign took place from December 15 to January 1 at 19 beaches across South Africa. At last count, Vodacom’s beach cleaners had collected 37 558 bags of rubbish from South African shores. The most litter came from KwaZulu-Natal (15 482 bags).

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