Plastic ingestion is one of the biggest threats facing these beloved creatures.
Dolphins and porpoises are some of the most adored animals in the ocean. Perhaps it’s because they’re so playful and friendly. Or perhaps it’s because their high intelligence and sociable nature are similar to ours. Either way, despite our love and admiration for them, dolphins and porpoises are facing some serious threats. And they all come from humans.
Plastic ingestion can be deadly, but not always in the most obvious ways
At least 48 species of cetaceans, including dolphins, have ingested plastic pollution. Obviously, eating plastic isn’t a healthy option for any animal. It can cause fatal tears and blockages, lead to illness and disease, or impart a false feeling of fullness that leads to starvation. But for predator species like dolphins and porpoises, there’s another risk that really affects the entire food chain.
POP goes the dolphin… and the porpoise… and the food chain
Plastics in the ocean can absorb toxins called POPs from the surrounding environment. POPs is shorthand for persistent organic pollutants, which are toxic organic compounds that resist breakdown and adversely affect human health and the environment. Some POPs can take up to a century to degrade. A piece of microplastic can have concentrations up to 1 million times greater than its surrounding environment.
POPs have what scientists call a high lipid solubility, which means they’re attracted to fats and oils. This means the toxins can pass through cell membranes and enter the fatty tissue of living beings. Over time, the toxins build up in the body and can have adverse effects on health.
Where do POPs come from?
Many of these toxins, or POPs, enter the ocean as runoff from land-based sources. POPs include a number of different substances including chemicals used in agriculture, disease control (such pesticides for disease-carrying pests like mosquitos), manufacturing, and industrial processes. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), DDTs (trichloroethane), and dioxins are some of the most common.
How POPs enter the food chain
Plastics in the ocean don’t go away. They just shred and break into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which can be smaller than a grain of rice or sand. Animals at the bottom of the food chain, like plankton, ingest these microplastics.
Prey species ingest the plastic-filled plankton. They may also ingest larger pieces of plastics on their own. The toxins from the plastic bioaccumulate, or build up, inside the animal over time.
The toxins inside these prey species become more concentrated inside the predator species that feed on them in a process called biomagnification, which means predators species like dolphins and porpoises are more affected by the toxins than animals lower down the food chain.
How POPs affect dolphins and porpoises (and people)
Marine mammals, especially cetaceans like porpoises and dolphins, aren’t able to detoxify these organic pollutants very well. They can impact their immune system and leave them more vulnerable to disease.
POPs can also disrupt several bodily systems including the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. Brain development and the nervous system are some of the most vulnerable. In humans, POPs can cause cancer, diabetes, thyroid problems, and behavioral problems.
What we’re doing to help
We have captains and crews removing plastic and other debris from the ocean 7 days a week. Every 4ocean bracelet purchased removes one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines, keeping it out of habitats where dolphins and porpoises live.
Founded in 1996 by Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Koldewey, Project Seahorse aims to secure a world where marine ecosystems are healthy and well-managed. Their focus on saving seahorses, securing the world's shallow seas, and training conservationists to continue this important work is what they're all about. Check out some more of the great work they are doing inside.
From plastic rain to the world's largest beach cleanup to an ambitious plan to phase out single-use plastics, we've scoured the headlines for the newest and most noteworthy stories related to the ocean plastic crisis. Let's take a look inside.
Seahorses are one of the most endearing, mystical, and beloved of all marine animals. Their strange shapes, vastly different appearances, and unique locomotion have mystified humans for centuries. To this day, however, our base of knowledge surrounding these amazing creatures is still relatively limited and we are just now really beginning to understand the depths of their existence. Read on to learn more about seahorses and the many threats they face.