“Don’t waste electricity, don’t waste paper, don’t waste food. Live the way you want to live but just don’t waste. Look after the natural world, and the animals in it, and the plants in it too. This is their planet as well as ours. Don’t waste them.” David Attenborough


It does not take long to look around the environment to find pollution in the form of litter or other items that has been created by humans. While we think of pollution as viewable, it can also be unseen in all environments, including the marine environment, creating havoc on ecosystems. Pollution found though this research is included in the list of threats in the Human-Whale Interactions section. This human made catastrophe needs humans to clean up all environments which is negatively affecting all life on this Planet. As humans we have created an overabundance of items made from materials that do not degrade that have turned into unwanted items thrown out into ecosystems harming all life. Instead of stopping production we are increasing production; however, it is time for humans to create products that instead do no harm to ecosystems and life within them. Throwing our trash into landfills is not sustainable because it can blow into streams and rivers ending up into oceans. We need to radically reduce our trash and change our destructive habits.

Humans have placed their health and lives in jeopardy with increasing levels of pollution as it exceeds acceptable thresholds.

While the industrial era and green house gas emissions are factors in climate change, the increase in the economy with an “unlimited accumulation of pollution” is leading the global society down a destructive path (Oura et al, 2015).

Globally humans have created 4–5 trillion plastic bags each year with 265 million tonnes of plastic being produced in 2010 alone that persist in the environment and can be mistaken as a food source for species and organisms (Eagle et al, 2016).

According to Mantovani et al (2014), in recent years, humans are becoming increasingly aware of the impact they are making on the environment through their consumption choices that either:

  • protect or harm the environment
  • their health and that of their family
  • other humans

Pollution And Whales

Evidence of pollution effecting marine life, including whales, is showing up more with whales dying with stomachs full of pollution even in the once pollution free areas such as the Arctic. Species can also mistake items foreign to them as a food source or become entangled in gear or plastics. Pollution is a global catastrophe that has now reached all ecosystems and can no longer be ignored.

Today, rubbish is increasingly more obvious in the ocean (Brugidou & Fabien, 2018). The effect of human activities on the Earth’s environment, including the ocean environment, has been significant (Markus et al, 2018).

Van Truong et al (2019) suggests plastic pollution in marine environments is a problem for everyone with 80% of it originating from land that flows into rivers reaching oceans, with the balance resulting from ships disposing of plastic in the oceans globally.

Plastic pollution interferes with marine animals and fish through entanglements and when plastic is ingested due to its similar appearance as a food source in the ocean (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Plastic bag (left), Jelly fish (right)

Plastic pollution from fishing vessels, whether intentional or accidental, accounts for “52 million pounds… of packing material”, with 298 million pounds” being lost which increased in 2010 to “640,000 tonnes” (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Ships over “400 gross tonnages” must have a management plan for garbage and a book to keep record of it; however, ships less than this size are exempt from these requirements (Van Truong et al, 2019).

“The first victims of these plastics are marine animals”, being “all marine turtle species, 67% of seals species, 31% of whales species and 25% of seabirds species” resulting in entanglements in fishing gear and nets and harmful results from plastic rope, netting, balloons, bags and sheets (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Because plastic barely decomposes, it builds up in the stomachs of marine animals which prevents the stomach from processing it or creating blockages in the stomach and intestines, which then alleviates hunger, and eventually causes starvation and death (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Plastics also contain toxic substances, such as “bisphenol A (BPA), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl (PBDEs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichlorothane (DDT)” that cause negative effects on organs which leads to infertility and death in marine animals and negative effects on humans, such as:

  • cancer
  • reproductive health
  • imbalanced child development
  • dysfunction of the immune system
  • DNA damage
  • changes of gene and protein
  • cell clotting
  • cell viability loss
  • bone inflammation
  • lesions in organs
  • damage from micro and nano plastic causing damage to endocrine and human health systems (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Zhu et al (2019) suggests about 63% of cetacean species have interacted with debris including a high degree of heavy metals and toxic pollutants.

Toothed whales have a decreased metabolic ability to remove environmental pollutants such as PCBs compared to polar bears, seals, walruses, and humans due to their lack of ability to filter these chemicals resulting in PCBs and mercury found in high trophic-feeding cetaceans, including killer whales.

Toothed whales also lack hair that allow carnivorous marine mammals to reduce contaminant load, including mercury (Sonne, 2018).

Plastics further cause threats to coastal activities and the reduction of economic fishing benefits in coastal areas, such as “aquaculture, fisheries, and tourism”, can alter and destroy “aquatic habitats, coral reefs and seagrasses”, and carry species to new environments endangering native species, and cause damage to ships (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Educating people on the negative effects and harm plastic pollution creates on the environment and human health is necessary (Van Truong et al, 2019).

In the 2000s, whale calls were reported to be 100 and 200 Hertz; however, in the 1950s the calls were 50 to 100 Hertz (Winner, 2010).

Noise pollution in the oceans has had the effect of whale calls growing louder similar to how humans shout; however, this takes more energy for the whale to produce sound and may distort the meaning of the call (Winner, 2010).

Pollution in the environment is the result of destructive human activities (Van Truong et al, 2019).

Examples of human pollution found at the ocean:

Examples of litter: plastic bottle, plastic straw, golf ball, razor, seat, bullet casing, tarp, rope, buoy, plastic milk jug, mufflers, car engine, paint brush, mayonnaise bottle, tire, wood remnants, garbage, clothing, balloons (Photo Credit: Maria Lisa Polegatto)



Nature's wonders: seaweed, rock piles, jellyfish, sand sphere, lily pads and flowers, frozen puddle, driftwood, wilderness sign, wild iris flowers, caterpillar, cormorants, wild roses, sandy beaches (Photo Credit: Maria Lisa Polegatto)

Keep in mind, “you cannot have healthy marine mammal populations without a healthy marine ecosystem” (Roman et al, 2013).

Continue to next Module here:

Created By
Maria Lisa Polegatto


Created with images by Thomas Millot - "Cooling Tower’s Fumes" • Brian Yurasits - "A single use plastic bag seen floating through the water. These are the consequences of our convenient lifestyles, and separation from nature. Spend some time outdoors and you'll see the plastic problem everywhere. YOU can help by using less plastic at home, and supporting local, sustainable businesses. Follow on Instagram @wildlife_by_yuri" • Brian Yurasits - "A pile of plastic collected along a small stretch of beach on Long Island, NY. This beach didn't have garbage receptacles, so visitors frequently dump their trash behind with no regards for the local wildlife. If you visit a beach like this, make sure you pack out what you brought in! And use less plastic in the first place. Follow on Instagram @wildlife_by_yuri" • Michael Blum - "Breaching" • Yifan Zhang - "untitled image" • Tamara Gore - "deep sea invaders ! " • Alyssa - "untitled image" • Martha Dominguez de Gouveia - "untitled image" • Brian Yurasits - "A single-use plastic water bottle that I found while snorkeling in The Gili Islands, Indonesia. Use less plastic when you travel, it makes a real difference! Follow on Instagram @wildlife_by_yuri"