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Plastic Entanglements Increase 40% For Marine Animals 

Plastic debris is unsightly; it damages fisheries and tourism, kills and injures a wide range of marine life, has the capacity to transport potentially harmful chemicals and invasive species and can represent a threat to human health (Thompson et al. 2009). 

Fatal entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris by marine animals has increased by 40% in the last decade, according to a recent Convention on Biological Diversity report that I co-authored with Sarah Gall and Duncan Bury.  Over half of the 280 papers we reviewed documented entanglement and ingestion, impacting 46,000 individuals and 663 species. 

Courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

Entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris can be fatal and are also likely to have a range of sub-lethal consequences, such as compromising the ability to capture and digest food, sense hunger, escape from predators, and reproduce, as well as decreasing body condition and impairing locomotion (GEF 2012). Ingestion, particularly of microplastics (Thompson et al. 2004), is also of concern as it could provide a pathway for transport of harmful chemicals (Teuten et al. 2007).

Chris Jordan

Steven Siegel/Marine Photobank 

Tim Fanshawe/©Marine Conservation Society

Plastic items consistently represent the major categories of marine debris by material type on a global basis (Barnes et al. 2009; Browne et al. 2011; Thompson et al. 2009). The graph below shows the most common items found during surveys of reference beaches in the northeast Atlantic Ocean. Plastic/polystyrene items make up about 75 percent of marine litter. 

Figure 1 in UNEP-OSPSPAR; See also OSPAR Commission (2009)

All known species of sea turtles, about half of all species of marine mammals, and one-fifth of all species of sea birds are affected by entanglement or ingestion of marine debris. The frequency of impacts varies according to the type of debris; but over 80 % of the impacts were associated with plastic debris while paper, glass and metal accounted for less than 2%.  About 15% of the species affected through entanglement and ingestion are on the IUCN Red List (GEF 2012). 

Courtesy of Sea Turtle.org 

For some species, a substantial proportion of the population appear to have ingested plastic. For example, approximately half of northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) contained >0.1g of plastic in their stomach  (van Franeker et al. 2011); and 36% of the individuals of commercially important fish sampled in the English Channel (Whiting, Blue whiting, Atlantic horse mackerel, Poor Cod, John Dory, Red Gurnard, Dragonet, Redband Fish, Solenette, Thick-Back Sole) had eaten plastic (Lusher et al. 2012). In Norway, lobster (Nephrops norvegica)--- also known as langoustine or scampi and one of Scotland’s most valuable fisheries--- 83% of the animals contained plastic filaments (Murray & Cowie 2011).

Phuket Marine Biological Center, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, Thailand. 


The problems of marine debris are internationally acknowledged, but marine debris is often presented in isolation.  I believe that there are considerable synergistic opportunities that will result from simultaneously tackling the issues of marine debris in terms of conserving habitats, biodiversity and fisheries, reducing our reliance on non-renewable resources, limiting global carbon emissions and reducing waste (STAP 2011).  Many of these challenges are considered within the Ocean Health Index in which scores in individual areas like biodiversity and coastal livelihoods interact with and affect overall ocean health scores.

However, I firmly believe there are differences between the issues associated with marine debris and many of the other challenges facing our oceans at the present time.  For example, extraction of resources such as fish and minerals benefits people, but often harms fish stocks and causes habitat degradation.  Similarly, we benefit from power generated by burning fossil fuels, but suffer climate and other effects from the carbon emitted by combustion; and we benefit from some types of coastal development, but they may harm wildlife habitats, coastal protection or other natural services.  

The situation is different for marine debris. Society benefits enormously from the use of plastics in packaging for food, drinks and other products; in the construction of strong, durable, light-weight components for cars and airplanes that save fuel; and in medical equipment and supplies.  But in all of these cases the benefit to society has no direct relationship with the accumulation of debris in our oceans.  We could eliminate the debris with no detriment to the benefit, and doing that is within our grasp---and our self interest.  Both in business and ocean stewardship this is an area where we can definitely do better.  Doing so would benefit us as well as marine wildlife.

Gérard Mauger, Fabrice Kerleau and Groupe d’Etude des Cétacés du Cotentin (GECC).


Finding Solutions

Current awareness and implementation of best practices in addressing the causes of marine debris are primarily focused on end-of-pipe solutions. However, a substantial, but relatively neglected underlying cause of debris entering the sea from the land is unsustainable production and consumption patterns. This includes the design and marketing of products internationally without appropriate regard for their environmental fate or ability to be recycled in the locations where sold, inadequate waste management infrastructure, and inappropriate disposal.

Often there is geographical separation between production of plastic in relatively developed economies and global consumption and disposal of the products in far-flung countries that lack the means to recycle or clean up the plastics used on a mass scale.  From a life-cycle perspective, the current one-way flow of most plastics from production, through typically short-lived use to disposal, is a major barrier to trash reduction as well as a major opportunity to tackle the challenge of marine debris (STAP 2011; Thompson et al. 2009).


Together with colleagues Bruce Labelle, Hindrik Bouwman and Lev Neretin I recently reviewed the issue of marine litter for the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) of UNEP. This information paper proposes the use of a regional approach oriented towards the needs and perspectives of the consumers and users of items that can become marine debris, and the nations and regions that suffer from its effects. Solutions should be identified through cooperation and dialogue between industry, government and consumers and should consider the five R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Redesign and Recover) in a regionally coherent context.

Potential actions to consider should encompass any or all parts of the supply and value chain, assessment of the full life cycle of the product and extended producer responsibility.  To reduce the magnitude of waste produced we need to minimize the quantity of material that is produced and used.  We must 1) design products that use the least amount of material necessary for the job (reduce excessive packaging, for example); 2) design and select products for extended use (for example, take a re-useable bag to shops rather than wrapping produce in one-time-use plastic bags, an action that should become as instinctive as taking a rain coat when the weather looks bad); 3) design products that can and will be recycled at the end of their useful lifetimes; 4) dispose of waste properly via recognized waste management and preferably by recycling. (Thompson et al. 2009).

I am delighted to see these principles, which are by no means new,  finally receiving the policy attention they deserve, for example within the Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe. In short, by working more smartly we can retain the benefits but substantially or entirely eliminate the impacts resulting from the accumulation of discarded plastics in our environment.


**Photos sourced by Steven Katona, Conservation International**

Barnes, D. K. A., Galgani, F., Thompson, R. C. & Barlaz, M. 2009 Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 1985-1998.

Browne, M. A., Crump, P., Niven, S. J., Teuten, E., Tonkin, A., Galloway, T. & Thompson, R. 2011 Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environmental Science & Technology 45, 9175-9179.

GEF. 2012 Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel GEF,  Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current status and Potential Solutions, vol. 67, pp. 61. Montreal.
Available at: http://www.stapgef.org/stap/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/STAP-CBD-TS67-Debris-F-WEB.pdf

Laist, D. W. 1997 Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine Debris: sources, impacts and solutions (ed. J. M. Coe & B. D. Rogers), pp. 99-141. Berlin: Springer.

Lusher, A. L., McHugh, M. & Thompson, R. C. 2012 Occurrence of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tract of pelagic and demersal fish from the English Channel. Marine Pollution Bulletin 67, 94-99.

Mauger, G. 2002. Marine debris obstructing stomach of a young Minke whale stranded in Normandy,France. Poster presented to American Cetacean Society, 8th International Conference “The Culture of Whales. The Animals, SPAR  People, The Connections.” October 4-6, 2002, Seattle, Washington http://www.morsbags.com/PosterSeattle2002.pdf

Murray, F. & Cowie, P. R. 2011 Plastic contamination in the decapod crustacean Nephrops norvegicus (Linnaeus, 1758). Marine Pollution Bulletin 62, 1207-1217.

OSPAR Commission. 2007. OSPAR Pilot Project on Monitoring Marine Beach Litter. Monitoring of marine litter in the OSPAR region. Available at: http://qsr2010.ospar.org/media/assessments/p00306_Litter_Report.pdf

OSPAR Commission. 2009. Marine Litter in the Northeast Atlantic Region: Assessment and priorities for response. R.L.Lozano and J. Mouat, KIMO International, Regional Consultants, February 2009.
Available at:

STAP. 2011 Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem: Introducing a solutions based framework focused on plastic. In A STAP Information Document. , pp. 40. Washington, DC: Global Environment Facility.

Teuten, E. L., Rowland, S. J., Galloway, T. S. & Thompson, R. C. 2007 Potential for plastics to transport hydrophobic contaminants. Environmental Science and Technology 41, 7759-7764.

Thompson, R. C., Moore, C., vom Saal, F. S. & Swan, S. H. 2009 Plastics, the environment and human health. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society B 364, 1969-2166.

Thompson, R. C., Olsen, Y., Mitchell, R. P., Davis, A., Rowland, S. J., John, A. W. G., McGonigle, D. & Russell, A. E. 2004 Lost at sea: Where is all the plastic? Science 304, 838-838.

UNEP-OSPAR, undated. Marine Litter: Preventing a Sea of Plastic.
Leaflet available at http://www.ospar.org/html_documents/ospar/html/marine_litter_unep_ospar.pdf.

van Franeker, J. A., Blaize, C., Danielsen, J., Fairclough, K., Gollan, J., Guse, N., Hansen, P. L., Heubeck, M., Jensen, J. K., Le Guillou, G., Olsen, B., Olsen, K. O., Pedersen, J., Stienen, E. W. M. & Turner, D. M. 2011 Monitoring plastic ingestion by the northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis in the North Sea. Environmental Pollution 159, 2609-2615.

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