As recent headlines have been full of articles and think pieces on plastic bags and straws, the harmful effect plastic has on the ocean is starting to feel more like a buzzworthy topic to gain clicks and likes than an actual issue. However, the recent death of a young female dolphin is starting to bring true compassion to the subject once again.
On Apr. 23, a rough-toothed dolphin was found stranded on Florida’s Fort Myers Beach. When the dolphin was found, she was emaciated and in poor health at just 111 pounds and five feet and seven inches in length. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a healthy adult rough-tooth dolphin weighs 350 pounds and is about eight and a half feet in length.
Biologists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) cared for the months-old dolphin overnight, but she was in dire condition. Although the dolphin was in a facility made to care for its health, much like the 6,210 hospitals in the United States meant to care for humans, even the experts at the FWC couldn’t help her. According to FWC spokeswoman Michelle Kerr, the biologists made the decision to humanely euthanize the young dolphin.
Afterward, biologists conducted a necropsy and discovered concerning contents in the dolphin’s stomach. Her belly didn’t contain a dolphin’s typical diet of fish or squid, but two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon. Scientists at the FWC said that the plastic they found in the dolphin’s stomach likely wasn’t the sole cause of her death, as a number of other factors could also be responsible.
“Although a significant finding, there are many additional factors to consider, such as underlying illness, disease and maternal separation, before a final cause of stranding and death for the dolphin can be determined,” the FWC wrote in a Facebook statement.
The Facebook post from the FWC also mentions that whether or not the plastic waste ultimately caused the death of the young dolphin, the incident points to the world’s ongoing plastic problem. The global production of just polyethylene, the most common plastic, totals around 80 million tons annually. Much of this plastic ends up in bodies of water around the world. Not only do these plastics pose a threat to unsuspecting wildlife, but they release potentially toxic chemicals into the aquatic environment as they degrade in the water. Consider the fact that the Turks and Caicos islands are only an 80 minute flight from Miami. All of that ocean could be home to dolphins just like this one who mistakenly ingest plastic.
Several states have already taken legislative action to curb the environmental damage single-use plastics cause. Hawaii enacted a statewide ban on plastic bags in 2015 and California was the next state to follow their lead. New York has also approved a plastic bag ban for all counties in the state that will go into effect next March.
Other states have not been quite as supportive of legislation that bans plastics. On Apr. 29, the Florida Senate passed an environmental bill that prohibits local governments from enforcing regulations on plastic straws over the next five years. The bill still needs approval from Governor Ron DeSantis to go into effect, but the mere prospect of allowing plastic straws to go unregulated until 2024 is putting many environmental groups on edge.