Sperm whale washes ashore in Canada

Emaciated whale starves to death with 330 pounds of fishing gear in its stomach

An emaciated sperm whale that washed up in Canada had 330 pounds of fishing gear in its stomach when it died, scientists have found.

The sperm whale was alive when it washed up on Cape Breton Island on November 9. Teams from the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative-Atlantic Veterinary College and the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewable Energy arrived on the scene to find the whale extremely thin. He died overnight, MARS said in a statement posted on Facebook.

An autopsy of the animal has now revealed there was 330 pounds of fishing gear in its stomach, leading it to slowly starve to death.

Sperm whales can be found all over the world. It is a vulnerable species and faces a number of threats including entanglement or injury in fishing gear and noise pollution.

A sperm whale washes up in Canada
A photo shows the sperm whale that washed up in Canada with fishing gear in its belly.
Marine Animal Response Society

Marine mammals get stranded for several reasons. Most often they are seriously ill or injured, which means they don’t have the strength to swim far from shore.

Tonya Wimmer, Executive Director of MARS, said Newsweek: “The ingestion of debris into the oceans, including fishing gear and plastics, is a serious problem for marine life worldwide. The death of sperm whales and many other species has been the subject of investigations and has been attributed to ingestion of debris. In the Canadian Maritime Provinces, we have had animals with plastic and other debris found in their stomachs before, but never anything to this degree before.”

Sperm whales typically weigh around 90,000 pounds, but it is unknown how much the sperm whale weighed in Canada when it was stranded. The species’ stomach is about 4 feet long and 3 feet wide.

The teams do not yet know if the fishing gear came from Canada or another country. It is also not known where or when the device was ingested.

“Fishing gear is known to be a threat to many species, both through ingestion and also when the animal becomes entangled in gear outdoors. For some Critically Endangered species [species], entanglements in fishing gear pose a serious problem for recovery. That said, entanglement in fishing gear isn’t the only threat to species in the oceans, Wimmer said.

These include the ingestion of marine debris, collisions with ships, pollution and the impact of noise in the oceans.

Nevertheless, fishing gear poses a huge threat to marine species, whether through ingestion or injury. It can sometimes become entangled around the body of whales, which means they are unable to eat or swim effectively. An estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die each year worldwide after being injured by fishing gear, a 2021 study from the University of St Andrews, Fife reported.

Fishing gear found in whale's stomach
A photo shows debris from fishing gear found in the stomach of a sperm whale that washed up on Cape Breton Island in Canada.
Marine Animal Response Society

A critically endangered North Atlantic right whale named Snow Cone rose to fame after becoming entangled in massive amounts of fishing line. Scientists last spotted her in September and determined her death was almost certain.

“There are two essential things that can be done. [We can] clean up the debris that is currently in our environment, both in the ocean and on land,” Wimmer said. “There are many ‘ghost gear’ and shoreline cleanup programs around the world that aim to address this problem because it is a major concern for the conservation of marine life, as well as for humans, given that we let’s eat animals in the ocean.”

” Ahead, [we can] ensure that debris does not end up in the oceans. This involves the overall reduction in the use of plastics… the proper disposal and recycling of all materials used, including fishing gear, and the collection of lost gear when anglers find it has been lost at sea “, she said. “And these measures are things that everyone should be doing, including those who don’t live near coasts, because debris in the oceans can get there in a number of ways via air and water.”

MARS recently worked to remove several great white sharks that were found stranded off the coast of Nova Scotia. While strandings of marine mammals are frequent, they are rare for sharks.

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