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Waves of beauty and pain: A look at plastic pollution’s toll on marine wildlife

When humans are harmed by manmade disasters—war, violence, disease and destruction—their unlucky plights make headlines. Painful images are printed and posted online. Upsetting videos are broadcast on loops. Why do wild animals suffering at the hands of humans get significantly less media coverage?

We’re causing major suffering for animals, especially at sea. We send anywhere from 4 to 12 million tons of our plastic trash there every year, where it swirls around and breaks up into smaller pieces, entangling and sickening wild animals.

I’ve documented stories about plastic all over the world, on land and at sea. Mostly I’ve seen plastic. Less often I’ve seen wildlife. Rarely, I’ve seen marine wildlife and plastic together. When I have, I haven’t always had my camera ready or on me. I haven’t had the right shooting conditions to capture these moments of suffering adequately. Or I’ve stepped in to help remove animals from a dangerous situation, to free them from a tangle of nets or clip off a knot of fishing line, with no time to snap photos.

But that has to do more with the vastness of the sea and relatively small probability of noticing a distressed animal than with the situation in the water, which is enormous and extreme. Injured animals, acutely aware of their compromised physical state, shrink away from boats, people and other animals. They know they’re especially vulnerable.

Every year an estimated hundreds of thousands of marine animals, from the smallest zooplankton to the biggest blue whale, encounter plastic at sea. At least 90 percent of the world’s seabirds such as albatrosses, fulmars and petrels have consumed plastic at some point in their lives, mostly broken-up bits called microplastic. More than 50 percent of the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, mostly the single-use bags we get at grocery stores and corner shops. A growing number of marine mammals are getting entangled in fishing gear and other plastic debris.

While professionally it might be helpful for me to catch marine animals in distress on camera, I’m glad I’ve mostly been graced by the presence of vibrant, healthy marine life. But I’m acutely aware of the problem and continue my efforts to focus the world’s eyes on it. Whether or not I eventually shoot those heart-wrenching photos, I will continue to discuss, write about and keep my eyes open to both the beauty and pain of the sea. It is not the time to turn a blind eye to plastic pollution’s toll on wild animals, no matter how hard facing it might feel.

I encourage you to take a look at the following images, my photos of healthy marine animals, and others’ photos of marine wildlife encountering marine debris…moments that happen every day at sea but which are rarely captured on camera.

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, off Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: Erica Cirino

Humpback whale entangled in fishing gear off Hawaii. Photo: NOAA

California sea lion, Santa Cruz, California. Photo: Erica Cirino

Entangled sea lion off the shores of Oregon. Photo: Jim Rice (OSU)

Green sea turtle off Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo: Erica Cirino

Entangled green sea turtle cannot remove itself from discarded fishing nets and ropes. Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Young (U.S. Coast Guard/Released)

Black-footed albatross, Eastern North Pacific Ocean. Photo: Erica Cirino

Deceased Laysan albatross filled with plastic on Midway Atoll. Photo: Chris Jordan

Risso’s dolphins in Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. Photo: Erica Cirino

Risso’s dolphin on Norwick beach, UK, dead from apparent entanglement in fishing gear. Photo: Mike Pennington

Pelagic cormorant on Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. Photo: Erica Cirino

Pelagic Cormorant with fishing line stuck in feathers, off Morro Bay, California. Photo: Michael “Mike” L. Baird

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