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Just two decades ago, it was rare to see one dead whale along New York’s shores in a single year. But this month alone, two dead humpback whales were spotted on Long Island — bringing the total to seven large whale strandings in the New York area in 2020. In the past three years, 52 carcasses of the large sea mammals have washed up in the waters around New York — averaging around one stranding every 27 days, according to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.
The rise in whale deaths — specifically humpbacks, North Atlantic right whales and minke whales — is now considered to be “an unusual mortality event,” a designation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that describes “a significant die-off” that “demands immediate response.”
The cause of the drastic uptick in deaths is still unknown, but a new book by science journalist Rebecca Giggs argues that one of the most pernicious causes of whale deaths around the world is human garbage that has polluted whale bodies.
In her haunting book, “Fathoms: The World in The Whale” (S&S), out now, Giggs writes of estuarine beluga whales in Canada that “had been discovered to be so noxious that their carcasses were classed as toxic waste for disposal” and killer whales in Washington state whom scientists declared to be “Earth’s most toxified animals.”
In the average life span of a humpback whale, which is about 50 years, our oceans have gone from being nearly plastic-free to riddled with the stuff.
An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. According to a new Pew Charitable Trust study, by 2040 that will likely triple to 29 million metric tons each year — the equivalent of dumping 110 pounds of plastic on every meter of coastline around the world. This staggering increase in ocean plastic comes mainly from a global increase in the use of plastic per person.
Some of it ends up inside the whale intact, which Giggs describes in nauseating detail:
- In 2013, an entire greenhouse — including tarps, hoses, ropes, flowerpots and a spray canister — found its way into the belly of a sperm whale in Spain. “There was so much plastic that it finally exploded,” a marine biologist told a newspaper at the time.
- Another sperm whale in 2016 in Germany had a car hood in its guts, along with a 43-foot-long net.
- In 2017, a Cuvier’s beaked whale in Norway had swallowed shopping bags that once held chicken from Ukraine and ice cream from Denmark, along with a Walker’s potato-chip wrapper from Britain.
- A gray whale in Puget Sound in 2010 contained surgical gloves, tracksuit pants, and golf balls.
Events like these have had a devastating effect on the world’s whale population. Just this month, North Atlantic right whales, whose numbers hover around 400, were moved from “endangered” to a “critically endangered species” and are “one step from extinction.”
Meanwhile, there is a “slow-moving extinction,” as marine biologists call it, facing at least two other aquatic mammals at this very moment — southern resident killer whales and Maui’s dolphins.
This is a shocking about-face after decades of campaigning to “Save the Whales” back in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the first and most successful eco-campaigns, it featured a catchy slogan, a popular lapel pin and a loveable victim — and as a result, the International Whaling Commission stopped the centuries-old tradition of killing whales for food and goods in (almost) the entire world in 1982.
No whale was ever driven to extinction by whaling … [But they have] disappeared from the planet, already, as a result of pollution.
As a result, populations rebounded. Sperm whales are no longer red-listed as endangered animals. Antarctic-Australian humpbacks thrived, having reached 90 percent of pre-whaling levels. Even Antarctic blue whales, the largest of the sea mammals, which had declined by 99.85 percent, with their ranks dropping from more than 200,000 to 400 individuals, have bounced back to more than 2,000 today.
And yet, these majestic creatures live with a new kind of danger. The reason, Giggs writes, is that: “No whale was ever driven to extinction by whaling, for all its sweeping violence. [But their species has] disappeared from the planet, already, as a result of pollution.”
A 2018 study of ocean garbage sources found that China contributes the most waste, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The US ranks 20th, responsible for around 1 percent of the ocean’s plastic waste, although we also ship enormous amounts of it overseas. In 2016 alone, 700,000 tons of plastic was shipped to China.
The same study found that people living near the coasts with little access to waste management systems were responsible for the majority of the ocean trash, while stray bottles, bags, straws and other packaging that didn’t make it into recycling or landfills made up a smaller, but not insignificant, percentage of the ocean’s garbage.
Every year, the plastic dumped into our seas congeals in mile-long garbage patches called “trash vortexes” or “white pollution” (named after the color of Styrofoam and shopping bags). Eventually, the plastic is broken down into shards by UV radiation and wave friction. These shards, which take hundreds of years to completely disintegrate, undergo physical and molecular changes that allow them to accumulate pollutants that have leached into the seawater. These shards are then ingested by sea animals who easily take them in with their food.
“The body of a whale is a magnifier for these chemicals … making whales more polluted than their environment,” Giggs writes.
In addition, whales are surface breathers, meaning they are subject to the same airborne carcinogens that we are — including cadmium, chromium and nickel, all produced by refineries around the world.
The biggest whales “possess Earth’s most colossal lungs, and draw the planet’s deepest breaths … making them especially prone to being permeated by atmospheric contaminants,” Giggs writes. Whales hold their breath underwater for upwards of two hours, making just one bad breath pervasively damaging. One study showed that some North Atlantic right whales have the same high levels of chromium — a serious environmental pollutant used to make stainless steel and process leather that reduces whale testes’ sperm count — as the levels you’d find in a lifelong metal-dipping factory worker.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), once used in coolants, concrete, and paint, but banned in the US since 1979, are so toxic that they continue to show up in the bodies of orca whales today. These indestructible pollutants are passed down like a faulty gene, transferring to whale calves through the placenta and through their mothers’ buttery breastmilk, causing still unknown damages along the way.
When we allow our pollution to contaminate whales, we’re messing with our world in general, Giggs argues.
Take whale excrement, for example. It provides the vital carbon required to fertilize plants and organisms in the deep ocean, such as plankton. Without whale feces, there’ll be less plankton.
Whale carcasses are also major incubators for life and sustenance in the sea. Each whalefall — the term for when a whale’s carcass drops to the ocean floor — is a feeding frenzy:
“Rattails, sea scuds, other kinds of polychaete worms, and eelpouts appear,” Giggs writes. “No one knows from where. Opportunistic octopuses bunt between ribs … Life pops. It is as though the whale were a piñata cracked open, flinging bright treasures. More than two hundred different species can occupy the frame of one whole whale carcass.”
A 40-ton whalefall carries two tons of carbon to the bottom of the sea. “That much carbon would otherwise take two thousand years to accrue on the seafloor … Each whale has been calculated to be worth more than a thousand trees in terms of carbon absorption,” Giggs writes. And a contaminated whale carcass affects all of life around it.
So how can we “Save the Whales” today, as the threat pivots from whaling to pollution?
Eliminating the use of unnecessary plastics (say, in packaging and plastic bags) could cut the plastics in the ocean by 47 percent, according to the Pew Charitable study. Using alternatives like paper and compostable materials would also help.
But nothing will move the needle unless trash is properly managed, the study argues. Increasing collection in rural and low-income countries with little to no access to waste collection, where garbage inevitably makes its way to a nearby body of water, is essential.
Meanwhile, change can happen if we pay closer attention to each and every one of our day-to-day decisions, said Robert DiGiovanni, director and chief scientist at the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.
“It’s about looking around you and seeing what does and doesn’t make it into the recycling bin or garbage. It’s about being aware,” he told The Post.
“The goal is to look at the health of the whole ecosystem. What’s good for the whales is good for us all.”
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