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Stanford study reveals Monterey Bay whales ingest millions of pieces of microplastic every day

Stanford study finds whales in Monterey Bay ingest millions of pieces of microplastics daily
Stanford study finds whales in Monterey Bay ingest millions of pieces of microplastics daily 03:01

MONTEREY (KPIX) -- A new study reveals startling numbers about how much ocean plastic is being consumed by the world's largest creatures. Stanford researchers have determined that Blue Whales in Monterey Bay are ingesting up to 10 million pieces of microplastic each day.

Creating plastic pollution can be as innocent as doing a load of laundry. Throw some synthetic fabrics into the washing machine, and some of the fibers are going to be washed down the drain and out into the ocean. 

It is those tiny specks, barely visible to the human eye, that concern Matt Savoca, an ocean pollution researcher at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. He was part of the study to find out how much of the microplastic fibers are getting into the whales.

"But the thing that surprised me was that there was no information out there from living animals, from living whales, as to how much water they filter or how much prey they eat," said Savoca. "And both of those things are absolutely critical to get at this question of how much plastic the whales are eating."

So, a group of researchers began following the large Blue, Humpback and Fin Whales in Monterey Bay. They used drones and high-tech sensors to track the animals' movements and eating patterns and they are truly world-class eaters.

"These whales eat hundreds of millions of tons--literally--of food in the ocean. That's more than our entire global marine fisheries catch. For all the seafood that we eat, the Blue Whales eat more than all that!" said Savoca.

The study found that a Blue Whale can consume as much as 95 pounds of plastic each day, perhaps a billion pieces in the course of one feeding season. But much of that is coming from the whale's main food supply, the tiny sea creatures--plankton and krill--that are, themselves, ingesting plastics on a microscopic level. Another member of the research team, UC Santa Cruz ocean science professor Dr. Ari Friedlaender, said he was stunned by the contrast in scales.

"That step is what's really surprising," he said, "that the smallest animals, these zooplankton and krill, these things that are eating very, very small particles, are getting enough in them that that can magnify in baleen whales to get these extraordinary numbers. It's really amazing."

The volume of plastics being generated is staggering. Experts say half the plastic that has ever existed on Earth was made in the last 20 years. And each year, only 9 percent of plastic sold in the U.S is ever recycled. But the research into ocean microplastics is so new that no one really knows how it's affecting the whales, if at all. So far, the whale population worldwide is doing pretty well. Whether they will pay a future price for man's obsession with plastic is a question that has yet to be answered. Either way, Savoca sees it as a huge wake-up call.

"If you have an animal like a whale," he said, "a really charismatic animal that is ingesting a lot of this pollution, that possibly could be affected by it--we don't know exactly how, or to what degree--that might galvanize people to say, 'You know what? We care about this and we're going to do something about it.'"

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