Research published on Tuesday found that three species of baleen whales are particularly exposed to microplastic pollution, swallowing millions of plastic debris daily.

According to scientists, whales are dangerously exposed to microplastic pollution in the ocean, gulping tons of microplastics each day.

Microplastics are defined as fragments of plastic smaller than 5 millimetres and they are considered one of the most common and pervasive pollutants on Earth, making up around 85% of plastic pollution in the oceans.

In a research study published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, marine biologists investigated how many microplastic particles are ingested each day by three species of baleen whales – blue, fin, and humpback – off the US Pacific coast.

According to the findings, blue whales are by far the species most exposed to microplastic pollution. The huge marine animal – which can reach a length of up to 100 feet (30 metres) – is found to ingest around 10 million particles of plastic debris daily. That’s roughly 95 pounds (43.5 kilograms) of plastic.

You might also like: Microplastic Found in Human Blood for the First Time

Slightly smaller fin whales can ingest up to 6 million microplastic pieces –approximately 57 pounds (25.8 kilograms). Humpback whales – the smaller of the three species, measuring about half the size of blue whales – may gulp about 4 million microplastics, or up to 38 pounds (17.2 kilograms) daily.

microplastic

The researchers carried out the study by examining the foraging behaviour of more than 200 whales using electronic tag devices including a camera, a microphone, a GPS locator and an instrument tracking the animals’ movements.

They also found that baleen whales predominantly feed at depths of 50-250 metres, which coincides with the highest measured microplastic concentration in the open-ocean ecosystem.

While the exact long-term health effects of ingesting microplastics on whales are not exactly clear, there is no doubt that these substances have ‘the potential to bioaccumulate and threaten ecosystem health, and can introduce harmful organic substances into the food chain. 

Moreover, several studies demonstrate that the absorption of plastic particles can cause mass mortality of fish and seabirds. Microplastics contribute massively to the loss of biodiversity and threaten ecosystem balance. A study commissioned by Seas At Risk and carried out by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology found that fishes who ingest microplastics experience energy depletion, fertility as well as behavioural problems, and, in extreme cases, even premature death.

Featured Image by Roy Mangersnes

You might also like: Are Microplastics Harmful And How Can We Avoid Them?