Marine litter knows no borders

Marine litter finds its way even to the world's most remote island, Bouvetøya. Seals are tortured by marine litter they have entangled themselves in and this sight made a strong impression on the Norwegian Polar Institute's field team.

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The seals were wrapped in "ghost nets". Remains of fishing nets and other fishing gear can continue to "fish" for a long time after they have been thrown overboard or lost, so-called "ghost nets." Photo: Chris Oosthuizen

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The research team caught the seals with a net.. Photo: Chris Oosthuizen

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...and carefully cut off the plastic with a knife. Photo: Audun Narvestad / Norwegian Polar Institute

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The plastic had cut several centimeters into the seals flesh and made deep and probably painful wounds. Photo: Audun Narvestad / Norwegian Polar Institute

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Audun Narvestad. Photo: Tor Ivan Karlsen / Norsk Polarinstitutt

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"Marine litter is a global problem, and these shocking images from Bouvetøya underscore that fact", senior research scientist Geir Wing Gabrielsen says. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

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Bouvetøya. Photo: Marius Bratrein / Norwegian Polar Institute

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The team picked up garbage from the beaches and brought it with them when they left Bouvetøya. Photo: Audun Narvestad / Norwegian Polar Institute

Bouvetøya (Bouvet Island) is furthest from any human settlements on the globe, but despite the long distance to people and sources of pollution marine litter ends up here too.

The five-member team from the Norwegian Polar Institute witnessed stark evidence of this during their winter fieldwork, studying seals, penguins and other birds on this harsh island in the South Atlantic, between South Africa and Antarctica. Every year, 70,000 fur seals, elephant seals and penguins come to Bouvetøya to feed and reproduce.

Open, infected wounds

The team came across four fur seals caught in plastic litter. The seals looked as if they were hurt and the wounds were inflamed, recalls Audun Narvestad, a Master's student in biology.

"It was a sad sight – you don't expect to find traces of human trash on this desolate island that is so far away from people," he says.

According to Narvestad, the seals had apparently tried to free themselves from the plastic, but in vain: the plastic had cut several centimeters into their flesh and made deep and probably painful wounds.

The research team caught the seals with a net and carefully cut off the plastic with a knife. They treated the wounds with antibacterial spray before releasing the seals. However, it was difficult for the team to follow up the injured animals among the several thousand seals that are on the island.

"We didn't see the seals again after we let them go so we don't know how it went after that. But we hope for the best for the animals and I feel we did what we could for them," Narvestad says.

Marine litter a global problem

Marine plastic waste has been most associated with the northern part of the globe and especially in the Arctic. But senior research scientist Geir Wing Gabrielsen at the Norwegian Polar Institute is not surprised that marine litter is showing up on the world's most isolated island.

"Marine litter is a global problem, and these shocking images from Bouvetøya underscore that fact. We keep hearing about new species affected by marine litter, and therefore thesepictures from Bouvetøya are important to document what the animals are exposed to, no matter where they are," Gabrielsen says.

Increased focus on the south

Until now, the Norwegian Polar Institute has mainly worked on issues related to marine pollution in the Arctic. However, Gabrielsen sees the need to extend the work to the Southern Hemisphere as well.

"We need more knowledge about the ocean and marine litter in the south because the problem is global," he says.

Worldwide, millions of tons of waste go straight into the ocean every single year. Most of the plastic floats like huge garbage dumps just below the sea surface. The debris stems from various activities on land and at sea, and plastic, rubber and other less degradable materials can remain in nature for hundreds of years, harming animals and humans.

Victims of "ghost nets"

The team at Bouvetøya saw plastic litter lying along the beaches several places, mainly floats and plastic bottles. The yarn-like plastic that the seals were caught up in seemed to originate from fishing.

In the Arctic, fishing boats and shipping traffic are the main sources of litter found on Svalbard's beaches. Remains of fishing nets and other fishing gear can continue to "fish" for a long time after they have been thrown overboard or lost, so-called "ghost nets."

Mammals, sea turtles and birds can get stuck in rope or line leading to serious injuries or painful deaths. Marine mammals stuck in ghost nets can drown.

Garbage clean-up on Bouvetøya

It made an impression on Audun Narvestad and the other members of the research team to see the animals suffer.

"It was no pleasant sight, but most of all, it was disappointing to see how human littering damages wildlife. The animals we rescued would never have managed to get rid of the entanglements on their own, and there are many animals out there who will never be rescued from a painful death."

The team picked up garbage from the beaches and brought it with them when they left Bouvetøya.