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Plastic Garbage Found in Stomach of Dead Gray Whale

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Biologists discovered a surprising amount of human debris and plastic among the stomach contents of a dead gray whale that stranded in West Seattle last week.

Sightings of grays are rare in Puget Sound and extremely unusual in Elliot Bay. But at the end of March, a gray whale was spotted close to the West Seattle shoreline to the delight of many spectators. Scientists were a bit concerned over the sighting fearing the animal may have been looking for food. The next day it had disappeared.

No one knows for certain if this is the same gray whale that died after stranding itself on a West Seattle beach. The gray died on April 14th and was towed to a remote location and examined by a team from the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Cascadia Research led the examination to determine the cause of death. What they found may… or may not surprise you.

According to a release from Cascadia Research, the 37 foot near-adult male was in better nutritional condition than originally believed and starvation was not considered a major contributor to the cause of death. The report said that the animal had more than 50 gallons of largely undigested stomach contents consisting mostly of algae but also a surprising amount of garbage. Some of the contents included more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweat pants, plastic pieces, duct tape, and a golf ball. Sounds like everything but the kitchen sink. And even though it may appear to be a large amount of trash to us, it actually made up only 1-2% of the stomach contents. There was no clear evidence that eating the debris had killed the whale.

The scientists at Cascadia Research were a little alarmed over the amount of garbage they found,

“Gray whales are filter feeders that typically feed on the bottom and suck in sediment in shallow waters and filter the contents to strain out the small organisms that live there. They have been known to accumulate material including rocks and other debris from the bottom ingested in this process. While debris has been found in the stomachs of some previous gray whales found dead in Puget Sound, this appeared to be a larger quantity than had ever been found previously.”

A large number of samples were collected for additional analysis including examination for pathology, microbiology, biotoxins, and contaminants, but the results wouldn’t be available for weeks even months. Sadly, this is the fifth gray whale to to have died so far in 2010 in the state of Washington and the fourth in the Puget Sound area in the last 2 weeks.

Obviously, there is a serious problem here, and hopefully, the deaths and studies of these animals will help biologists save other gray whales at risk in the Puget Sound area.

Follow Cindy Tickle on Twitter @ethicalbiz Image Credit: Cascadia Research

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