Whilst rough weather meant few cetaceans were seen this week in the North Sea, it did mean Rose saw a lot of something else....
I don’t think I’ve ever been keener to get back to work than I was last Wednesday arriving in Newcastle to re-board the DFDS KING Seaways! Even as Alex was handing over I was itching to get back to deck watch! The first six days were very choppy with some rough nights at sea but it certainly made for some entertainment in watching the waves hitting the windows up on the 7th deck! Luckily it didn’t last forever and we were rewarded with a glimpse of a minke whale as well as several porpoises around Ijmuiden and even a common seal grappling with some gulls who were after her dinner.
However, whilst the rough weather meant that we didn’t see many cetaceans at the start of the week it did mean we saw a lot of something else: litter. From unmoored buoys to enormous empty diesel containers and several large pieces of floating plastic, we were seeing multiple pieces every single deck watch.
After the storm, I decided to use my off hours to go down to the closest beaches at each of our ports of call: to King Alfred’s Bay in Newcastle and Ijmuiden Beach in Ijmuiden, and have a look for microplastics and specifically nurdles. I found lots.
Whilst this beach appears to be free of litter all of these pieces of microplastic were picked up from this same area
Nurdles are a type of microplastic, but the difference is that they start life as a microplastic rather than pieces that are broken down from a larger plastic object. They are the building block or raw material used for making all plastic products and are the size and shape of a lentil and usually a translucent white in colour. These can be bought quite cheaply and are shipped to factories across the world. But accidents happen and in 2012, 150 tonnes entered the water in Hong Kong after an accident there. In 2017, 40 tonnes of these pellets were lost into Durban harbour after a storm. Imagine dropping ten tonnes of plastic lentils into the ocean and trying to pick them back up again; it is a nigh on impossible task.
Microplastics, unlike plastic bags or cup and other large plastic litter, do not tend to cause obstruction of the stomach or breathing apparatus of large animals. However, they are making their way into the food chain and causing a different kind of issue. Firstly; soft polymer plastic is attractive to hydrophilic molecules such as the toxins PCBs (polychlorinated Biphenyls – a persistent chemical known to cause infertility in mammals and with links to cancer) or DDTs (another very persistent pesticide that causes central nervous system failure). Although these chemicals are banned in Northern Europe now they are very persistent and high levels still exist particularly in coastal areas. When nurdles or other microplastics pass though water that contains these toxins, they become saturated with them making the plastic pellet a concentrated source of toxins.
So, whilst the plastic pieces themselves are small and not likely to do a huge amount of damage internally if swallowed, they may be carrying this toxic load. PCBs and DDTs are both highly lipophilic (meaning they absorb readily into fat) and this is where the problem becomes particularly dangerous for marine mammals. Warm blooded animals living in a cold sea need high amounts of fat, or blubber, to survive. When these chemicals make their way into a whale or dolphin they end up being stored in the blubber. Here they start to cause endochrine disruption, liver damage and infertility.
So why was I looking particularly for nurdles if many kinds of microplastics can cause damage to cetaceans? Nurdles are even more dangerous than average microplastics simply because they look almost identical to fish eggs making them very likely to be eaten by fish, which are then often consumed by our marine mammals. The nurdles also float making them a potential food for any lunge feeding baleen whales.
So what can we do? It is time for us to remember materials that were common only a few decades ago: stainless steel watering cans, wooden brooms, cotton bags and so on. It is time for us to buy things that last and to fix them when they are broken instead of throwing them away, and ultimately use less plastic.
As I move into my 4th week on board the DFDS KING Seaways I hope that I continue to meet passengers who tell me about their efforts to reduce plastic and other ways they are trying to live more sustainably. It is humbling and uplifting to know that so many individuals are doing their bit and together it will start to make a difference.
ORCA Wildlife Officer - North Sea