A sperm whale has been found dead on a beach in Hawaii, its body full of hundreds of pounds of ingested plastic waste.

Saturday, January 28th, a 56-foot sperm whale was found deceased on a reef of Kauai. Scientists, who rarely get to study the deep ocean predators, performed a necropsy there on the beach.

According to Kristi West, the director of the University of Hawaii’s Health and Stranding Lab, the likely cause of death was internal blockage. The whale’s digestive passage was full of fishing debris and other man-made waste, but nothing was wrong with other organs they were able to examine.

“The presence of undigested fish and squid lends further evidence of a blockage,” she said in a news release from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Retrieved from inside the sperm whale were six hagfish traps, seven kinds of fishing net, two kinds of plastic bags, a light protector from a fishing boat, thousands of yarns of nylon fishing line, and a float from a fishing net. There was so much debris that they weren’t able to excavate it all from the 120,000-pound animal before the next high tide returned the corpse to the sea.

According to scientists, approximately a quarter of all plastic waste produced each year winds up in the water, an estimated 8.8 million tons. In the sea, it can break down into harmful microplastics, be eaten by sea life like this whale, or conglomerate into massive floating rafts of trash which entangle and endanger everything nearby. Animals which don’t eat plastic directly inevitably eat animals which do, meaning there is no sea life which isn’t impacted by this issue.

During the time this whale was being investigated, another whale, this one a humpback, had to be freed from a bundle of fishing debris including rope and two large buoys off the Big Island, not far away. According to NOAA, approximately 20% of all ocean plastic is fishing waste, making it the largest single source.

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