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July 5, 2012

Day Four at IWC 64: Dispatch #1

“Plastics, Benjamin, plastics”: debris and detritus in the marine environment

Humane Society International

  • In addition to proposals seeking to resume commercial whaling at the IWC, whales must face multiple emerging threats. Mariano Sironi/ICB/WCI

by Bernie Unti

There is hardly anyone of a certain age who does not recall Mr. McGuire’s counsel to Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film, "The Graduate." In the same vein, there is hardly a soul within the like-minded nations and organizations active in whale conservation and protection who does not understand that contemporary whaling is in fact the least of the problems whales face in the 21st century. 

More and more frequently at the IWC, and almost invariably from within its Scientific Committee, come the reminders of the urgent need for action to address environmental and other threats, such as toxic pollution, zoonotic disease, ship strike, by-catch, and climate change. The Scientific Committee has come into its own as a source of information, understanding, and ideas concerning whale populations throughout the world.

Emerging threats

Of the welter of environmental concerns coming to the fore at IWC 63 in Jersey and IWC 64 in Panama, marine debris and its effects upon cetaceans enjoyed a greater prominence, in part as a result of “Eating Plastic,” a 2011 paper on the topic by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s director of science, Mark Simmonds.

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It’s a sad and simple story. Plastic and synthetic materials are accumulating in our oceans and causing tremendous harm to marine animals, with an estimated 267 different species, including a few cetaceans, known to have suffered entanglement or ingested debris. Plastic bags, bands, straps, lines, and netting ensnare marine animals, or get into their stomachs, causing them injury and death from starvation and drowning. 

Such debris doesn’t really dissolve, but persists for many years, breaking down into micro-particles that further absorb toxic pollutants and enter the marine food web with unknown consequences for marine life.

Marine litter comes from the accumulated impact of human activities and reliance on plastics, but there are other factors, like the tsunami that struck Japan in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011, washing a vast and unknown quantity of detritus out to sea. 

A global effort for a global issue

Coincidentally, that same month, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) sponsored the 5th International Marine Debris Conference, which produced “The Honolulu Commitment,” an outline of 12 core actions to reduce marine debris. The Honolulu Commitment called upon organizations and agencies throughout the world to contribute to the effort to evaluate and address the problem of marine debris.

At Panama, the IWC Scientific Committee decided to sponsor a workshop in conjunction with the Conservation Committee, with published proceedings, “to better understand the effects of debris interactions at an individual and population level; to identify and classify key types and sources of debris that contribute to entanglements, or are ingested by cetaceans and examine the mechanisms by which they arrive in the marine environment, with the goal of identifying possible mitigation measures; design and develop a centralized database to collate cases of debris interactions to obtain more accurate estimates of the incidence of mortality and injuries, help detect trends over time and identify hotspots; and contribute towards a quantitative assessment of the extent of the threats for cetaceans.”     

Now, it’s a matter of finding the needed funds to support this timely and valuable workshop.

Help HSI continue to fight for the whales: Donate and take action today.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy advisor and special assistant to the CEO/president of The Humane Society of the United States, and a Humane Society International delegate to the IWC.

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