For Animals, Plastic Is Turning the Ocean Into a Minefield

From getting stuck in nets to eating plastic that they think is food, creatures worldwide are dying from material we made.

On a boat off Costa Rica, a biologist uses pliers from a Swiss army knife to try to extract a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril. The turtle writhes in agony, bleeding profusely. For eight painful minutes the YouTube video ticks on; it has logged more than 20 million views, even though it’s so hard to watch. At the end the increasingly desperate biologists finally manage to dislodge a four-inch-long straw from the creature’s nose.

Raw scenes like this, which lay bare the toll of plastic on wildlife, have become familiar: The dead albatross, its stomach bursting with refuse. The turtle stuck in a six-pack ring, its shell warped from years of straining against the tough plastic. The seal snared in a discarded fishing net.

But most of the time, the harm is stealthier. Flesh-footed shearwaters, large, sooty brown seabirds that nest on islands off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, eat more plastic as a proportion of their body mass than any other marine animal, researchers say: In one large population, 90 percent of the fledglings had already ingested some. A plastic shard piercing an intestine can kill a bird quickly. But typically the consumption of plastic just leads to chronic, unrelenting hunger.

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