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  Shetland Today 15 Jun 07
Sad death of whale spurs call to tighten up on litter
Neil Riddell

A fistful of discarded plastic bands similar to the one which caused the injury to the whale. The bands were collected from a one-metre section of beach and illustrates the abundance of plastic waste around our coast.

Photo: Keith Morrison A fistful of discarded plastic bands similar to the one which caused the injury to the whale. The bands were collected from a one-metre section of beach and illustrates the abundance of plastic waste around our coast. Photo: Keith Morrison

THE DEATH of a minke whale which had a plastic packaging strap lodged around its neck has led to appeals for more care to be taken over the dumping of plastic at sea.

The juvenile mammal, estimated to be in the region of five metres in size, first appeared at Blacksness Pier off Scalloway on Saturday showing severe injuries and an emaciated state.

The whale was initially seen circling slowly close to the pier before moving out to the East Voe marina.

Ron Patterson, local inspector of the SSPCA, monitored the whale from lunchtime on Saturday until dark and had noticed later in the day that the mammal's demeanour had changed.

He said: "At certain times when it came close you could see the problem on its neck and it was so thin. It seemed to be getting weaker and weaker, and when I went back on Sunday morning there was no sign of it at all.

"In the evening I got word that it had been found dead close to the marina. I've had a look at its injuries and it was a small piece of webbing around its neck that had caused severe lacerations, which I would say definitely hampered its ability to feed - the animal was totally emaciated."

Mr Patterson said that it was likely the young whale had become entangled in the plastic at a younger age and its neck had grown, causing the lacerations.

He said: "It's definitely something that could have been avoided. It is quite distressing because this will happen fairly frequently, and there's a good chance you never see them.

"Where it would pick it up is very difficult to say - they start playing with these things when they are youngsters, get them around their heads and then grow into it."

Austin Taylor, who photographed the whale both before and after its death, said it was a "very sad but graphic example of the kind of suffering that can be caused to mammals by marine trash, whether intentionally discarded or not".

He added: "This is one of those plastic packing straps that are just about indestructible - the whale didn't stand a chance.

"It's ironic that the whale chose to cast up where it did, amongst a whole load of marine litter - discarded packaging, fishing nets and the like."

Karen Hall, of Scottish Natural Heritage, said that although samples have been sent south for analysis, it is "pretty clear it was emaciated and starving - the packing band had been on it for several weeks, if not months, and probably restricted its ability to feed properly."

Ms. Hall conducted a study for KIMO a number of years ago, but said it is hard to tell if the level of marine litter has declined since.

She said: "This type of plastic is used by a wide variety of people and could have come from something on land as easily as it could from a salmon farmer or a fisherman. But at the end of the day it shouldn't have been in the water at all.

"With the minke whale it is ironic that it landed on one of the worst beaches in Shetland, emphasising the continuing problem we have with marine debris."

She added: "I think everbody has to be responsible for their own actions. It's no longer acceptable to say 'what harm can one piece of litter do?' - we've seen what harm one bit of litter can do.

As yet there is no indication of where the plastic came from, but Hansen Black of the Shetland Fishermen's Association said that the incident was regrettable and that industry is closely involved in efforts to tackle the problem of marine litter.

He said: "It's very sad for the whale that it encountered the plastic strapping. I don't know where that came from or if there's anybody looking into that.

"Marine litter is a danger to everything in the sea, including the fish, mammals and fishermen, and part of our strategy is that we are involved in the Fishing for Litter project, where fishermen are taking ashore any marine litter that is trawled up and taking it ashore where it can be analysed."

Minke whales
By Joyce Garden

Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales, adult females (the larger of the sexes) reaching up to 9.4 m. Baleen whales have large heads to accommodate their enormous mouths, fringed with baleen plates. These filter out plankton from sea water as the whale swims along. Minkes are widely distributed, in relatively small numbers, along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe from Norway south to France. They can be identified by their slender pointed heads and sickle-shaped dorsal fins.

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International Coastal Cleanup Singapore website join the effort to understand and reduce marine litter

Plastic Shopping Bag Kills 'Temata', Beaked Whale Stranded in the Cook Islands Underwater times 27 Oct 06

Related articles on marine litter, Global issues: marine and plastic bags
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