Aquatic Debris and Animals

Debris found in aquatic environments primarily comes from sources on land. It is carried by wind and water, sometimes over long distances. It is the result of neglect, inattention or simply overturned garbage cans. Unfortunately, every year thousands of animals get entangled or ingest debris, leading to significant injuries or even death.

What happens to animals caught in aquatic debris ?

Animals that are caught in aquatic debris are often unable to free themselves. They don’t understand what is happening, panic and make the situation worse by moving frenetically. Don’t forget that animals don’t have hands to help release themselves.

Body parts that are wrapped in string, fishing line or plastic bags may be deprived of blood circulation, potentially leading to loss of a limb. They can also cause birds and turtles to drown by preventing them from surfacing to breathe.

Furthermore, animals that have debris attached to them are slower, making them more vulnerable to predators and preventing them from feeding effectively. For example, abandoned fishing lines can easily become looped around the necks of ducks and herons. The line cuts through their skin, prevents effective flight and feeding, and eventually causes the birds to die. 

Animals also can get caught inside plastic rings, such as those on plastic bottles or holding together six-packs. The most spectacular strangling is seen among turtles. If a turtle gets caught in a plastic ring, its solid shell protects its soft tissues. It may continue to live several years surrounded by the plastic ring. However, the ring hinders its normal growth and causes many health problems.

What happens to animals that ingest aquatic debris ?

Many animals are deceived by the appearance of debris and mistake it for food. For example, sea turtles are known to mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and birds to mistake small pieces of plastic and cigarette butts for small fish.

Ingested debris can lead to starvation in two ways. First, it can block the digestive tract, preventing the animal from eating or digesting anything. Second, it can create a false sense of satiety, leading the animal to stop its search for food though it doesn’t have the energy it really needs.

Some debris, such as fish hooks, small scraps of metal and fragments of broken glass can cause perforations in the stomach when ingested by fish or birds. This causes internal bleeding that kills the animal.

Some debris contains toxic chemicals that can poison animals if ingested. This is true of cigarette butts. Health agencies generally agree that it is dangerous for a young child to eat three cigarette butts. So if you think of a duck, which is much smaller than a child, it is likely that ingesting three cigarette butts could cause serious health problems.


What can I do ?

There are many small things that you can do to reduce the problems debris causes wildlife.


dot Cut through the plastic rings that come with a six-pack or are part of a plastic bottle lid.
dot Don’t discard debris, even your cigarette butts, on the ground and urge your friends to refrain from doing so.
dot Collect debris that you see on the ground.
dot Join or organize a cleanup near your home.
dot Never throw away broken fishing line: dispose of it appropriately.