Scientists find plastic in 100% of marine mammals examined from UK waters

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 31 January 2019

Scientists who examined 50 animals from 10 different species that had died from a variety of causes found plastic in the digestive system of every one. The animals had all washed up on shores around the UK.

Common Dolphin Dead
© Charlotte Coombs

We don’t yet understand the full implications of ingesting plastics, but initial studies suggests that it has a range of impacts on marine animals.

Dr Laura Foster,
MCS Head of Clean Seas

The study of dolphins, seals and whales revealed “microplastic” particles, less than five millimetres across, in their stomachs and intestines. Researchers say the vast majority of the particles were synthetic fibres that may have been shed by clothes or fishing nets.

Others were fragments of originally larger pieces that could have come from food packaging or plastic bottles.

Lead researcher Sarah Nelms, from the University of Exeter, said: “It’s shocking - but not surprising - that every animal had ingested microplastics.

“The number of particles in each animal was relatively low, an average of 5.5 particles per animal, suggesting they eventually pass through the digestive system, or are regurgitated.

“We don’t yet know what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals.”

Species studied included the Atlantic white-sided dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, the common dolphin, the grey seal, the harbour porpoise, the harbour seal, the pygmy sperm whale, Risso’s dolphin, the striped dolphin, and the white-beaked dolphin.

Dr Laura Foster, MCS Head of Clean Seas, says the presence of microplastics in these iconic marine mammals unfortunately shows the omnipresence of this pollution: “We don’t yet understand the full implications of ingesting plastics, but initial studies suggests that it has a range of impacts on marine animals. The solution is simple- we must reduce our plastic use in our everyday lives, and where we do continue to use it, we must see it as valuable resource which we ensure we use effectively and efficiently.”

The study showed that animals that died as a result of infectious disease had slightly higher numbers of particles than those killed by injury or other causes.

Professor Brendan Godley, from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, said it was not possible to draw any firm conclusions on the significance of the link. But he added: “We are at the very early stages of understanding this ubiquitous pollutant.

“Marine mammals are ideal sentinels of our impacts on the marine environment, as they are generally long-lived and many feed high up in the food chain.

“Our findings are not good news.”

The team, whose findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports, said bacteria, viruses and contaminants carried on the plastic were a cause for concern.

A study published last year by scientists from the University of Manchester also found high levels of microplastics in UK rivers and evidence that much of it is washed towards the sea during flooding.

The researchers tested river sediment at 40 sites throughout Greater Manchester and found microplastics in all of them, including some urban “hotspots” which contained hundreds of thousands of plastic particles per square metre.

Actions you can take

  1. Join the Plastic Challenge
  2. Join a beach clean
  3. Help us stop the plastic tide
  4. Read our microbead ban position statement
  5. Find out more about nurdles
  6. Learn about Deposit Return Systems
  7. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  8. NGO microbead briefing paper

Did you know?…

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be 6 times the size of the UK

Every day millions of microplastics enter the sea from personal care products such as scrubs and toothpastes

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of almost all marine species including fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles