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German marine biologists describe plastic pollution inside stranded Sperm Whale stomachs

January 18, 2017
Press release of the Ministry of Energy, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Areas in Schleswig-Holstein

Environment Minister Robert Habeck and Gerd Meurs-Scher show garbage dumps found in the Pottwalm saws.

Environment Minister Robert Habeck (left) and Gerd Meurs-Scher show garbage, which were found in sperm whale stomachs. | © Claussen / LKN.SH

During the investigation of sperm whales stranded in Schleswig-Holstein large amounts of garbage have been discovered. Four of the 13 whales had large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. This was not the reason for the beaching and the death of the animals, but reflects the situation on the open sea. Veterinarians and biologists suspect that the most affected animals would have suffered major health problems from the remains of the garbage. This became apparent during the presentation of the results of the investigation on 23 March 2016 in the Multimar Wattforum in Tönning.

The most striking pieces of garbage are the remains of a 13-meter-long and 1.2-meter-wide net used in crab fishing, a 70-cm-long plastic cover from the engine compartment of a car and the sharp-edged remains of a plastic drum. “These findings show us the impact of our plastic society: animals inadvertently ingest plastic and other plastic waste, suffer from it, in the worst case, some starve to death, which is an urgent reminder to tackle garbage in the sea now,” said Environment Minister Robert Habeck.

Sperm whale pod beached themselves – then died of heart and circulatory failure

The 13 whales were stranded in January and February on Schleswig-Holstein’s North Sea coast. Professor Ursula Siebert, director of the Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research at the Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover (ITAW), examined the sperm whales with her team. All animals were young, not yet sexually mature bulls, 10 to 15 years old and 12 to 18 tons. They were all in good health and nutrition. Their hearing, which is important for the orientation of the animals, showed no signs of a acoustic trauma and the infestation in the different organs with parasites was normal.

All the animals had stranded into the shallow waters of the Wadden Sea. There, lying on the ground, the weight of her body pressed their blood vessels, the lungs and other organs together so that the animals died of acute cardiovascular failure.

In their stomachs, Dr. Uwe Piatkowski, a marine biologist from Kiel’s GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research, discovered with his students a total of over 110,000 squid parts, such as the indigestible upper and lower jaws of squid. These species are mainly found in the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea and the Icelandic waters, the main wintering areas of the sperm whales. In a stomach, the beaks of 21,000 of the squid up to 35 cm in length were found, which corresponds to a live weight of about 4.2 tons.

Last food intake probably in the Norwegian Sea

Siebert and Piatkowski suspect that the endangered whales had last eaten in the Norwegian Sea. The first group with three animals had probably only been staying for a short time in the North Sea, the second with ten animals probably a little longer. In some of their stomachs were found bones and other remains of North Sea fish such as monkfish, cod, whittling and sea bunny.

Since the beginning of the year, 30 sperm whales were stranded alive or dead on the North Sea coast in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Denmark and Germany. In addition, strandings in the northern and eastern seas of Denmark and Germany included sword whales, fin whales and minke whales. Pig whales and a blue-and-white dolphin were found live on the coasts of Schleswig-Holstein in February, but were brought back into deep waters except for the dolphin.

The cause of the large number of strandings is unknown according to the statements of the two scientists. Unusually high temperatures and particularly strong storms registered in the north-east Atlantic in recent weeks could have pushed water masses from the Norwegian Sea southwards into the North Sea – and the squid with them. Possibly the sperm whales followed their main food and so, like other whale species, entered the North Sea. A plausible explanation, which is not proven however.

Siebert and Piatkowski, however, made it clear that the occurrence of sperm whales in the North Sea is not extraordinary. All migratory species occasionally appear outside their actual distribution area. They open up new habitats and adapt to new conditions. Since the 16th century, more than 200 strandings on the North Sea coast have been documented, among them 21 animals that were stranded in the mouth of the Elbe at Neuwerk in 1723.

The males of this population spend the winter in the North Atlantic. On their migrations, individual animals enter the shallow and low-nutrition North Sea. With their acoustic sense of orientation, they can be misdirected there.

Special exhibition on the stranded sperm whales in the Multimar Wattforum

The spectacular finds of the whales, their recovery, separation and analysis are from now on in a special exhibition at the National Park Centre Multimar Forum presented. Gerd Meurs, head of the Multimar Wattforum who helped in the preservation of the animals, will also prepare a lecture series. Whale experts will present details of the whale beachings from May onwards. Environment Minister Habeck will address the public on August 11th.

Habeck: “Rescue of the whales was a logistical masterpiece”

In January, three sperm whales were driven by Helgoland and the Schleswig-Holstein Wattenmeer National Park near Dithmarschen. Since they constituted a dangerous obstacle to shipping, they were salvaged by ships of the Federal shipping administration and state coastal protection authority and national parks and marine protection Schleswig-Holstein (LKN.SH).

At the beginning of February, eight sperm whales were washed in the Wattenmeer National Park near the Kaiser-Wilhelm Koog as well as two animals on sandbanks at Büsum. They were examined by the same whale experts near the port of Meldorfer.

The skeletons of five animals were sent to the University of Giessen and Rostock, the Stralsund Marine Museum, the Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover as well as to the Nature Protection Association Öömrang Ferian on Amrum and are to be exhibited there.

Recovery, decomposition and investigation of whales have cost about 250,000 euros. The costs are borne on a pro rata basis by the federal government (70 per cent). In addition, the LKN.SH has around 2,200 hours of work done by employees, as well as the use of LKN ships and other equipment. This has resulted in some 160,000 euros in internal costs for the LKN.

Background to the garbage in the sea

In Schleswig-Holstein, the issue of “garbage in the sea” in 2015 was a focus of the state government and was accompanied by an intensive awareness campaign and public relations work. The joint Fishing for Litter initiative with the NABU, along with the support of plastic-free model regions and garbage collections are already helping to draw attention to the problem. The Cabinet has recently agreed to a comprehensive list of measures for the protection of the sea, which should also be applied to the source of waste, in the manufacturing industry. The implementation of these measures will be coordinated in the future at the federal level through a round table of different stakeholders.

“Schleswig-Holstein will work for necessary legal regulations at federal or EU level, also for a ban on microplastics,” Habeck said.

(Press release of the Ministry of Energy, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Areas in Schleswig-Holstein)

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