Watch CBS News

Hawaii researchers found fishing nets, plastic bags and traps in stomach of dead sperm whale

Rare whale may die after getting entangled
North Atlantic right whale is "likely to die" after becoming entangled, NOAA says 01:30

Researchers in Hawaii say they are "surprised and sad" to find plastic items and other marine debris in the stomach of a 60-ton sperm whale that washed up on a reef in a park in Kauai. 

The whale carcass was discovered on Jan. 27 in Lydgate Park. Heavy equipment was used to transport it to the beach, where researchers from  University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Health and Stranding Lab spent 15 hours examining it and searching for clues about what led to its death, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said on Facebook

A "major finding," according to Dr. Kristi West, the director of the health and stranding lab, was "the number of manufactured items in the whale's stomach." 

"In addition to squid beaks, fish skeletons and other prey remains, we found at least six hagfish traps and we also found significant amounts of at least seven types of fishing net, at least two types of plastic bags, a light protector, fishing line and a float from a net," West said. "We did find a number of things in the stomach of the sperm whale that may have contributed to its death and are certainly disturbing."

Because of the whale's immense size, researchers were not able to examine the full stomach. West said this means it's likely there was "additional material" that wasn't seen. However, there was "certainly (a) substantial enough volume of foreign objects to cause a blockage" in the areas they examined. 

West said that this was the first time a sperm whale in Hawaiian waters presented "this kind of ingestion of discarded fishing gear and nets." 

Edward "Luna" Kekoa, Recreational Fisheries Program Manager with the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources, said the discovery should cause people to think twice about putting marine debris in the ocean. Becuase sperm whales travel thousands of miles, there's no way to tell where the items came from, according to the DLNR. 

"These man-made items persist in the ocean for a very long time, and we hope we can learn from this," Kekoa said in the DLNR statement. "Every few days we hear about another whale, or dolphin, turtle, or monk seal entangled in fishing gear or lines. At an absolute minimum, let's prevent any more gear, plastic bags, and other items from getting into the system." 

There have been a number of recent whale deaths in oceans around the United States. 

On the East Coast, 10 dead whales have washed up on New York and New Jersey beaches since Dec. 2022. In January 2023, whale corpses were found in Maryland, North Carolina and Mississippi. On the West Coast, a sperm whale washed up on an Oregon beach and in Half Moon Bay, California

There is no one cause for any of these deaths. Some speculated that the whale deaths in the New York and New Jersey area were caused by offshore wind power, but federal officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have said there is no evidence to support that theory. 

From 2016 to 2022, 178 whales have washed ashore between Maine and Florida. Lauren Gaches, a NOAA spokesperson, told CBS News in January 2023 that post-mortem examinations were done in about half those cases. Of those examined, 40% showed "human interaction," such as entanglement with fishing gear or having been struck by a vessel, Gaches said. 

Over 14 million tons of plastic waste enter oceans each year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.