Yesterday, I wrote that the precise reason for declining Cook Inlet beluga numbers hasn’t been established. We can be certain, however, that subsistence hunting led to the precipitous fall.
Since the hunting ended in 1999, the Cook Inlet belugas simply haven’t “rebounded” enough to remove their endangered status. They face a mixed bag of threats – one of which might actually come from a mix of bags!
In this article, today’s New York Times takes a dive into the Australian National Science Agency’s report on “the scale of microplastics building up on the ocean floor.”
Based on a newly published study from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), it presents a frightening statistic. In 2017, CSIRO researchers collected sediment samples from the floor of the Great Australian Bight, an area of ocean south of the continent.
According to NYT author Tiffany May, if the concentration of microplastics in the CSIRO samples is typical, enough of them now blanket the ocean floor to fill “18 to 24 shopping bags… for every foot of coastline on every continent except for Antarctica.”
Microplastics fragments (measuring from 1 micrometer to 5 millimeters) are microscopic remnants of 4.4 to 8.8 million tons of plastic discarded in the oceans every year. Much comes from single-use plastic grocery bags.
In Southern Thailand, the Guardian reported, a young pilot whale died in 2018 after eating 80 plastic bags. But if the Cook Inlet beluga aren’t anywhere near Australia or Southern Thailand, could ocean-polluting plastics affect them too?
It’s not impossible. Last year, researchers from Vancouver’s Ocean Wise Plastics Labs tested seven belugas harvested by the Northwest Territories’ Inuvialuit community. Each one had “an average of 10 microplastics” in its intestinal tract.
And in 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued this dire warning, which applies not only to belugas but to us:
“… [T]he Arctic Sea ice has been recently shown to contain a concentration of microplastics. As the sea ice thaws, these particles are released into the water and might enter the food chain.
This discovery presents a serious human health concern, as approximately 40% of the United States’ commercial fisheries (by weight) come from the Bering Sea… The problem is not limited to the Arctic: it affects us all.”
Determining microplastics’ effects on belugas – or on people who eat the same kinds of fish they do – will take time.
But why wait? Caring about ocean pollution comes naturally for those of us who eat plant-based. Let’s be leaders in the battle to save all the belugas by reducing the use of plastic.