Dead Sperm Whale Ingested Fishing Nets, Plastic Bags and Traps, Researchers Say

A sperm whale that washed up on the Hawaiian island of Kauai was found to have fishing nets, plastic bags, and various traps inside its stomach, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

The 56-foot whale was examined by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa Health and Stranding Lab, who spent 15 hours investigating the cause of death, the Hawaii DLNR said.

“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,” Dr Kristi West, director of the Health and Stranding Lab, 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.”

Researchers believe the manmade debris may have caused a blockage which contributed to the whale’s death.

“We are only able to examine a small number of our dolphins and whales that die in our waters, and we think that each individual we are able to examine represents as many of 20 other animals who are likely to ultimately die from these types of impacts,” West said. “It’s heartbreaking to see this kind of destruction in an individual animal.” Credit: Hawaii DLNR via Storyful

Video transcript






- Like, yeah, these are fragments of bigger nets. I doubt that they cut them. Or that the nets--

- Yeah.


- Can't.

- Absolutely. We were really surprised and saddened to find this volume of material.

So we're seeing at least six different types of nets, at least two different types of plastic bags. We have at least six hagfish traps, a light fixture protector, a float. We saw a number of items in the stomach of the sperm whale that really shouldn't be there.

It would be just speculating. So we don't know if it was ingested over time or if it was ingested in one sort of fatal swoop. But we do think it's likely that it contributed to the death of the whale.

Yeah, we were limited in our examination because of the immense size of the animal and the ability to really clearly examine the stomach. But there were signs in examining the gastrointestinal tract that this did create a blockage that ultimately stopped digestion in this animal.

In addition to all of the items in the stomach that we found that we really wish weren't there, the animal had been foraging. So there were probably at least 100 squid beaks, a fish skeleton, tentacles from a squid.

However, there was absolutely no digestion occurring beyond the sphincter that leads to the gastrointestinal tract. So no formation of feces, no processing of all of those food items, which is what leads us to believe that there was actually a blockage by the material that you're seeing.

I think when this material enters our ocean systems, it has the ability to persist for a very long time. And I think what we can learn from this is at an absolute minimum, let's prevent any more gear, plastic bags, and other items from getting into the system and certainly remove anything that we see before it has the opportunity to result in this kind of destruction for an individual animal.

Unfortunately, yes. We only are able to examine a small number of our dolphins and whales that die in our waters. And we think that each individual that we examine is maybe representative of say 20 other individuals, based on those percentages. So this certainly does suggest it's not the only animal that is likely to ultimately be dying from these types of impacts.

This is the first sperm whale in Hawaiian waters where we have seen this kind of ingestion of a foreign material. However, we are often limited by examining these large sperm whales that come in because of their size and sometimes due to being in more advanced states of decomposition.

Huge stomach. Huge stomach. So we were not able to examine the full expanse of the stomach, which is why we think that it's likely that there was additional material that we didn't recover. But huge stomach. Huge animal.

It's the location or the position within the stomach where a blockage can be dangerous. So the size of that opening from the stomach that leads into the intestinal tract is actually relatively small, although we have a very large stomach to begin with. So this is certainly a substantial enough volume to cause such a blockage if in that position.