This story will sound like the David versus Goliath story where tiny pieces of plastic put a huge threat to the ocean’s biggest animals. Whales, whale sharks, and manta rays are facing grave danger because of the tiniest pieces of plastics, the microplastics.
A study published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution suggested that those huge aquatic animals are swallowing incredible amount of plastic every day. The study found that about 2000 pieces of microplastic are entering the body of huge aquatic animals everyday.
The ingestion process happens whenever they are eating with a process called filter feeding. Of course, they don’t do it intentionally because basically small particles the size of microplastics are not visible for their eyes.
No Sufficient Data
The ingestion of plastic of course a harmful activity whatever the creature it is. The study conducted by researchers from three countries, Australia, United States, and Italy found that microplastic consumption may lead to the decline of population to filter feeders.
However, the researchers admit that there is very little research talking about it, especially talking about the risks. Most of the researches out there only talking about potential dangers that small plastic pieces to other animals like sea turtles or smaller fish.
“Despite the growing research on microplastics in the marine environment, there are only a few studies that examine the effects on large filter feeders,” said Elitza Germanov, a researcher from Marine Megafauna Foundation who also contributed to the study.
It happens because those little animals look more fragile than the bigger ones. And since plastic is not an organic matter, the small body of those animals cannot process it, which mean the microplastics will remain forever in their body. Even when those animals die, the microplastic will be released again to the ocean from their dead body.
However, bigger size doesn’t always mean more strength against such harmful pollutant. Even researchers stated that those megafaunas are more prone to the danger that microplastic may cause inside their huge body.
Bigger Mouth, Bigger Risk
Now let’s talk about the David versus Goliath that has been mentioned earlier. The microplastics will bring harm to any animal ingesting it, no matter the size. In fact, larger sea creatures have bigger risk of being exposed to the danger.
“Our studies on whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez and on fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea confirmed exposure to toxic chemicals, indicating that these filter feeders are taking up microplastics in their feeding grounds,” said Maria Cristina Fossi, a researcher from University of Siena who contributed to the study.
Bigger mouth and filter feeding technique they use to get foods is the reason why. In the filter feeding process, the huge sea creatures swallow thousands cubic of water every day. While the water they swallow potentially has been contaminated with microplastics.
This would be an additional threat for the megafauna, while currently they are already facing so many threats from other sources like overfishing and pollution. Another threat they get from outer world may bring those lovely animals to extinction.
“It has become clear though that microplastic contamination has the potential to further reduce the population numbers of these species, many of which are long-lived and have few offspring throughout their lives,” said Germanov.
No Doctor In The Ocean
Indeed, the microplastic is generally a dangerous object for all aquatic animal, because the tiny pieces of plastics less than five millimeters long can go into their body from any openings. Whether it is their mouth, respiratory track, and wounds.
However, the researchers said that there is still no real evidence that microplastic can directly kill the huge sea creatures. We can relate it back to the lack of research studying about the effect of the small particle to the aquatic megafauna.
“Exposure to these plastic-associated toxins pose a major threat to the health of these animals since it can alter the hormones, which regulate the body’s growth and development, metabolism, and reproductive functions, among other things,” Fossi stated
There are only two choices for the ‘infected’ animals, being poisoned by harmful chemicals the microplastic contains, or just wait for it to be cancer. Both are deadly options for those sea creatures, and we can associate this condition to our health when being exposed to pollutants.
We are lucky to still have the knowledge, supplements, and even medical treatments when we become ill. But how about those who live under the ocean? They can only continue their life while suffering from the incurable diseases.
The lack of data about how microplastics affect huge sea animals like manta rays, whales, and whale sharks showed that they are not given a lot of attention in this field. However, in real life, many people consider the animals as iconic animals.
However, they are somewhat famous animals for commoners and many people recognize them. Attracting the attention from all around the world to the condition of those huge sea creatures can be a good strategy to draw people’s attention about the danger of microplastics.
“It is worth highlighting that utilizing these iconic species, such as whale sharks, manta rays and whales to gain the attention of and engage with communities, policy makers and managers will go far to enhance stewardship of entire marine ecosystems,” said Germanov.
The example is by highlighting the danger of industrially produced microplastics to the endangered whale sharks. Since the fish itself is an endangered animal based on IUCN Red List, it will give whale sharks the spotlight from researchers, activists, medias, and ordinary people.
Manta rays are also popular among tourists and travelers who love to do diving activity. Since this animal can be found in exotic diving places, manta ray has drawn big attention from divers all around the world.
Yet, paying more attention to some animals doesn’t mean that other animals are neglectable. Principally, every animal in the ocean are under the threat of microplastics, so the biggest attention should be paid to reducing the production of it and making cleaner ocean.