Marine litter: a serious environmental ‘ghost’

Babalwa Mqokeli
20 June 2014

litter under wave

The Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) has become more aware and concerned about the state of our marine environment and the harmful effects marine debris/litter has on our marine birds and mammals. Slow-degrading/not bio-degradable litter and together with increases in littering is leading to a steady increase in the amount of marine litter found in the oceans and on beaches. Briefly, marine debris/litter is described as human-created waste that has either been accidentally or deliberately discarded in the marine environment.

Plastic pollution by numbers

The biggest contributor known to marine litter is the negligent use of plastics or plastic material, and this is also the biggest threat to our marine birds and mammals, fish and even microscopic organism such as zooplankton. Fishing line and other fisherman’s waste is a huge threat to our marine life as it entangles itself around its victim as well as being ingested (particularly by sea birds where it can be found in the gut in large quantities). Fisherman’s nets left or discarded out at sea trap animals, rendering them hopeless. Not only are our marine birds and animals put in danger due to marine litter, but coral reefs are also badly affected from it, as things such as fishing litter can be destructive to a coral reef.

plastic problem

Cindy after putting up fishermens’ bins and a kelp gull hooked on a plastic bag

NVT therefore has been involved in a number of projects and/or initiatives to raise awareness about littering in our marine environment, as well the impacts this has on species utilising these environments. NVT has placed a number of fisherman’s bins at all beach entrances in Nature’s Valley for fishing related waste to help clean-up Nature’s Valley’s beach. These fantastic bins were provided by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) and Plastics SA, and are maintained by the Working for Coast EPWP monitors. We also run an adopt-a-beach programme with two of our eco-schools where we bring school learners down to the beach and teach them about our marine environment and the importance of keeping our beaches clean. Recently, for World Oceans Day on the 8th of June, NVT together with ORCA Foundation, Pro dive and the Plett Hope spot committee held fun activities at Plettenberg Bay main beach to raise awareness about our beautiful beaches.

Plett beach clean up

Plettenberg Bay beach clean-up

“Ghost nets”-nets left behind by fisherman can lead to the entanglement of dolphins, fish, sea turtles, sharks, crabs and many other creatures. Ocean Blue Adventures was able to capture evidence of marine litter at the Cape Fur seal colony where they found some of the marine animals entangled, wrapped and stuck with litter fishing equipment such as ropes, nets, fishing lines, hooking rings and anthropogenic things such as toys and plastic. Below are pictures of marine litter on marine mammals from Ocean Blue Adventures. Some of these animals have cuts and scars caused by marine litter. Marine litter is a big problem that needs to be addressed urgently.

sealsdolphins entangled

Entangled seals and dolphins.

On the 12th of April 2014 Dr Gwen Penry who leads the Southern African Bryde’s Whale Project was alerted to the presence of a dead whale, entangled with 282m of rope. The whale was found off Keurbooms in Plettenberg Bay. This just shows how marine litter is destroying marine life.

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Dead Whale entangled with 282 meters of rope. (Photo taken by Gwen Penry)

Minke Witteveen, a MSc student at UCT, has been looking into the effects of urbanisation on the breeding biology and foraging behaviour of Kelp Gulls in Plettenberg Bay. Her study has revealed an overwhelming amount of plastic, glass and tinfoil in regurgitated pellets and fresh regurgitations showing that an alarming number of birds are foraging in urban areas, ingesting our waste. The use of plastics in the nest presents an entanglement concern, but fortunately this breeding season there were no instances of entangled chicks. In general, urbanisation has altered the lives of these birds, and not in a positive way. Too often birds are seen sick, injured and dead due to anthropogenic factors. The threats and effects of marine litter on our oceans and our marine animal life are devastating and need to be addressed as soon as possible. We have a responsibility, as custodians of the Earth to minimise our impact on the natural fauna living in the areas we share, they were there first.


Entangled Kelp Gull found dead

Some years ago, NVT ran an awareness campaign with local fisherman, handing out educational fisherman’s packs and engaging local fisherman on issues like size regulations, litter, etc. We will be re-launching this project in September this year, and look forward to some good data coming in on the use of our Fisherman’s bins, and to seeing the results of a large awareness and education campaign – hopefully better educated and more concerned fisherman leaving less behind when they leave.

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