More than 80 percent of the tiny pieces were synthetic fibers from items such as discarded clothes, fishing nets and toothbrushes, according to researchers from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Called microplastics, they are less than 0.2 inches in size.
"It's shocking -- but not surprising -- that every animal had ingested microplastics," lead author Sarah Nelms said in a university news release. She is a doctoral candidate in the marine lab's Center for Ecology and Conservation.
"We don't yet know what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals," she said. "More research is needed to better understand the potential impacts on animal health."
She noted that the number of particles in each animal was relatively low, suggesting they eventually pass through the digestive system or are regurgitated.
The animals died from a variety of causes. The guts of those that died from infectious diseases had slightly more microplastics than did those that died of injuries or other causes.
Brendan Godley, a professor of conservation science at Exeter, said it is too soon to draw firm conclusions about the potential significance of this. Scientists are at the very early stages of understanding this "ubiquitous pollutant," he said.
"We now have a benchmark that future studies can be compared with," Godley added. "Marine mammals are ideal sentinels of our impacts on the marine environment, as they are generally long lived and many feed high up in the food chain. Our findings are not good news."
The study was published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.
Ocean Health Index has more on microplastics.
Microplastics in, dolphins, Seals Heighten Environmental Concerns
We urgently need more research to understand how ghost gear contributes to the microplastics problem. When larger pieces of plastic degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, they pose a major threat to sea animals. Plastic waste is littering our update Dietary Guidelines for a Healthier You oceans and threatening the lives of millions of marine animals. The plastic food chain, aside from the consequences for animal health, microplastics could also impact human health. Find out more and support our Sea Change work. Is there a connection with ghost gear? Treatment for...
"However, our paper shows that spending almost All U.S. Teens Falling Short on Sleep, Exercise time in the sea does increase the probability of developing illnesses, such as ear ailments bouncing From ’Jump Park’ Trampolines Into the ER and problems involving the digestive system, such as stomach ache and diarrhea. "We have come a long way in terms of cleaning up our waters, but our evidence shows there is still work to be done Gaze said. People who eat seafood may end up ingesting the microplastic particles ingested by the fish they are eating. But we urgently need further research to understand ghost gear as a contributor to the microplastics problem. Its likely that as the volume of ghost gear in our oceans increases, the volume of microplastics will increase too. Its likely when someone eats a portion of mussels, for example, they may inadvertently consume 90 plastic particles (Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen, 2014).