True horror of plastic pollution

On the 11 May, BDMLR were called out by members of the public who had spotted a grey seal in the sea that was trapped within a huge mass of tangled marine litter and ghost gear in an inaccessible location along the coast near Boscastle, Cornwall. Due to the time of day and state of the tide, it was not possible to immediately launch a boat from the harbour, but early the next morning a team of volunteers headed out on board a boat kindly offered by a local resident, while other volunteers from BDMLR and Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) assisted with the search from the clifftops where it had last been seen. Despite the efforts to find it, the stricken animal was never seen again.

On 27 May, the same seal was found washed ashore a few miles further down the coast at Trebarwith Strand. Heartbreakingly, he had died as a result of the injuries he had sustained. Volunteers from BDMLR and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network (CWTMSN) attended the scene to record and photograph the body in detail and to remove the entangling material from around him, though nobody could be prepared for the gut-wrenching sight hidden beneath the pollution. As the material around his neck was gradually cut away, more and more of the injury was slowly revealed until finally, laid bare was an animal that had clearly endured a horrific amount of suffering.

BDMLR’s North Cornwall Assistant Coordinator Michelle Robinson-Clement, who was part of the original search team, attended the stranded body and discovered the true extent of his suffering said “this animal suffered a prolonged, tortured death, there is no question of that. He is one of the worst cases of entanglement we have seen anywhere in the world due to the extreme nature of his injuries. The material that was taken off him weighed 35kg – he wouldn’t have been able to swim or dive.”

His body was retrieved by CWTMSN volunteers the following day and taken for a post-mortem examination at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus in Penryn. On examination it was found that the heavy load of net had created a huge, encircling wound between his head and shoulders that had caused so much damage to the muscles of the neck that the vertebrae and trachea (windpipe) were clearly visible and the unfortunate seal would not have been able to lift its own head. At the very least he had spent three weeks like this, leaving him starving, weak and exhausted. James Barnett, pathologist for the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme- UK strandings who examined the seal, said “this is probably the most serious net-related injury I have seen in 27 years of working with seals and the level of suffering this animal must have gone through is truly appalling.”

“For all our amazing wildlife and coastlines in Cornwall, we actually have the second highest rate of entanglement of any of the true seal species in the world, at up to 4% of the animals we record in our survey work – in 2017 and 2018 we recorded around 100 different seals caught in marine litter in each year” said Sue Sayer, Chairwoman of Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust. “The really sad fact is that many of them, like this poor animal here, are very often in places where they are totally inaccessible for rescuers to reach them, and frequently move between locations across the English Channel and Celtic Sea, which makes them difficult to track” she continued.

Niki Clear, Marine Conservation Officer at Cornwall Wildlife Trust added “sadly this is just one of the hundreds of thousands of marine mammals that are killed as a result of entanglement in marine litter every year around the world and this case shows how sickening a sight it really is for those of us who have to deal with this on a regular basis. However, incidents like this give us a chance to make a public call for action about the state of our oceans and what anyone can do to help reduce or prevent pollution from getting into the environment and killing more of our wildlife. Although it is an incredibly upsetting case, we needed to tell this animal’s story to make sure it didn’t suffer and die for nothing to be done about it.”

The four organisations are once again urging people to take action with advice on how they can help:
• Write to your MP about your concerns about marine pollution and its effects on wildlife and ask for better fishing gear disposal schemes.
• Support organisations, schemes and campaigns that help to prevent and remove pollution on our beaches and in our seas such as Fishing for Litter, Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society.
• Take part in beach cleans either at an organised event or when out for a walk yourself – a piece of fishing nylon will last over 500 years and kill many creatures, so every piece removed could be saving lives.
• Ensure litter is disposed of properly, especially if it can be recycled – 80% of marine litter actually comes from land-based sources.
• Report lost fishing gear and large pieces of ghost gear washed ashore to Fathoms Free at or Ghostbusters ALDFG Recovery( for clearance.
• Support charities that record, survey or rescue marine wildlife such as CWTMSN, CSGRT, BDMLR and the Cornish Seal Sanctuary (OFFICIAL).
• Live marine animals in distress can be reported to the BDMLR’s hotline on 01825 765546.
• Dead marine animals can be reported to the CWTMSN hotline on 0345 2012626 (Cornwall) or the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme on 0800 652 0333 (England and Wales).

Photo courtesy of Vee Price (BDMLR)