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Marine debris: a substantial threat with more research required

The Scientific Committee of the IWC has endorsed a report concluding that the impact of marine debris on cetaceans is more substantial than previously thought. 

Marine debris ranges from glass and metal to plastics and wood, and includes abandoned or otherwise lost fishing gear, known as ‘ghost gear.’  Much marine debris is synthetic and may endure for hundreds of years.  Different materials can impact cetaceans and other marine life in many ways, and the IWC has embarked on a number of initiatives to understand and mitigate potential threats from a range of different types of debris, from entanglement in ghost fishing gear to ingestion of microplastics. 

The latest report was presented to the Scientific Committee at its recent, virtual meeting, and contains the recommendations from the third in a series of international expert workshops addressing this wide-ranging topic.  The first workshop in the series was science-led, analysing the different threats, knowledge gaps and requirements for further research. There was a policy focus to the second event which discussed practical, management actions.  The third workshop reviewed the latest evidence of ingestion, entanglement, microdebris and toxicology, and the findings are stark.

One important discussion centred on the vulnerability of particular, deep-diving cetacean species to marine debris ingestion, and the potential for some of these species to be used as indicators of marine debris presence. The report also discussed the relationship between marine debris and entanglement in fishing gear.  640,000 tonnes of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear enters the oceans each year, compounding the difficulty of determining what percentage of entanglements are in this versus in active fishing gear.

The workshop report makes detailed recommendations, emphasising the importance of long-term studies, and supporting a range of measures including standardised post-mortem procedures and strandings networks. The report also encourages the establishment of a roster of marine debris experts to represent IWC at other relevant events and maximise the scope for collaboration.

In concluding its discussion on this report, the Scientific Committee recognised that the impacts of marine debris are more substantial than previously thought and noted the importance of continued work on this topic. 

The workshop was held at La Garriga, Spain, in December 2019 and the report was presented to the IWC Scientific Committee at it’s meeting in May 2020.

To read the report of the Marine Debris Workshop click here.

To read more about Marine Debris and the work of the IWC, click here.