Key chains, plastic bags, rubber balls, shoes and balloons. One might think these are just some of the objects that have washed up as trash along our coastline. It’s true, but these things have also been taken out of the stomachs and intestines of some of the seals and sea lions the California-based Whale Rescue Team (WRT) has rescued over the years. Many tons of trash wash up on the shoreline from all parts of Los Angeles County —mostly the storm drains and flood control channels. The trash isn’t just unsightly; it’s the direct cause of injury and death to countless numbers of marine animals.
It’s difficult for marine wildlife to exist along the shores of populated beaches having to deal with myriad hazards brought on by humans. Trash of all kinds, from shopping carts to styrofoam cups, plastic bags, plastic bottles, paper bags and wrappings from fast food restaurants, six-pack holders, tennis balls — plus millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, petroleum products and other pollutants that wash into oceans, rivers and lakes. A day doesn’t go by when WRT volunteers don’t come across a bundle of balloons that a party boat had released or lost at sea that eventually washes up onshore.
Before the balloons litter the beaches, many them will be mistaken for food by sea turtles, dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions. Most of the animals that attempt to eat a balloon or a trash bag will perish from suffocation or intestinal blockage. Last spring, WRT volunteers responded to a sea lion that was suffering from domoic acid poisoning. The pregnant sea lion, suffering from the neurotoxin, struggled to stay up on her fore flippers as she was battered by the incoming surf. What exacerbated her situation was a plastic trash bag wrapped around her body. It was such a pathetic sight as she turned her head almost looking at us for assistance. She evidently swam into the trash bag but was able to break her head through it enough to allow her to survive.
Another animal we responded to recently was a young sea lion who was desperately trying to gasp for air. As WRT volunteers approached the sea lion, we observed a small piece of material coming out of the corner of the pup’s mouth. We had no time to spare as the pup was suffocating, so I grabbed what I could of the exposed material and pulled gently. Slowly we began to see the obstruction: a plastic shopping bag.
Hundreds of miles of discarded fishing nets litter and wreak havoc on the marine life along the Pacific coast. The nets become so overloaded with dead fish and mammals, they eventually sink to the bottom. The “lucky” animals break away from the net only to have remnants of the nets remaining entangled around their head and neck, which eventually causes death from strangulation or infection.
Trash also takes its toll on sea birds. Every year, WRT volunteers rescue dozens of birds suffering from some kind of entanglement with discarded fishing line, or six- pack holders
The marine animals WRT rescues are just the few who make it close to the beach shore. Countless others are lost at sea; their lives taken by human waste. Organizations, schools, local and state governments are dealing with the trash issue through a variety of educational programs that include on-going, highly-publicized beach clean-up days. These are wonderful events that have a positive effect on educating people who need to understand the severe consequences of throwing a cup out their car window, or leaving a six-pack holder on the ground. Lawsuits by environmentalists and ballot initiatives are other ways citizens are striving to clean-up California’s beaches. In an attempt to rid the beaches of cigarette butts, many cities in Los Angeles County have banned smoking on the beach.
Marine animals suffer from many ailments that are out of our control to do something about. The misery and death caused by trash that ends up along our coastline is something that we can and must eliminate. It’s not only the manufacturer’s responsibility to produce more environmentally-responsible products. It’s also up the individual to be consumer conscious, to pick up trash, and avoid littering. WRT volunteers will continue to come to the aid of marine animals in distress. By doing your part, you can make our job much easier and help prevent the suffering and strangulation of countless marine animals.
As always, the Whale Rescue Team can use your support to assist with its rescue efforts. In 2004, WRT volunteers rescued 165 marine mammals and more than 100 sea birds.
Whale Rescue Team
P.O. Box 821
El Segundo, CA 90245