Seals, the fat Einsteins of the ocean, are dying painfully from plastic pollution

They called the sea lion Blonde Bomber.

When Adam Ratner shared the story of the brave marine mammal with Salon, his voice rose with affection. The Blonde Bomber story is just one of many where a fin jar nearly lost its life to plastic pollution, but it was clear that Blonde Bomber struck a special chord.

“Pier 39 is a place in downtown San Francisco that is sort of a mass tourist attraction,” Ratner, the associate director of conservation education at The Marine Mammal Center, told Salon. Sea lions often turn up to the delight of tourists, but in the case of Blonde Bomber, they also noticed that he had some sort of plastic belt strapped to his neck. He needed help and people contacted The Marine Mammal Center because they cared about him.

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“We sent a team out and it takes a lot of training to save these animals,” Ratner explains. Still, Blonde Bomber was smart and (fitting enough for a seal) quite slick. This was a problem as he didn’t want to get caught. “Even though he had a piece of plastic around his neck, he was still very active,” Ratner told Salon. “When we tried to save him, he swam away.” Only with a “real community commitment to let us know where they saw Blonde Bomber”, the team was able to save the life of the unfortunate animal.

“I think in humans we see intelligence as how similar they are to humans,” Ratner told Salon. “Seals and sea lions have a very different world. They live under the waves.”

“Luckily we were able to rescue him from Pier 39,” Ratner told Salon. “We took him to the hospital and it turned out to be a plastic wrapper, something that goes around boxes to help you move forward, what you think of on a ream of paper you might see in a company.” It took a while surgery for our vets to cut that piece of plastic loose and treat the wound. It only took a few days for Blonde Bomber to actually be in the hospital before he was healthy and happy and ready to go back to the ocean with a second chance at life. But if he was not found or not treated. † †

Ratner paused.

“Those were life-threatening injuries,” the conservation expert added.


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Unfortunately, most stories about seals and plastic pollution don’t have a happy ending like Blonde Bomber’s. dr. Kim Warner, senior scientist at Oceana, co-authored a 2020 report that analyzed how sea turtles and marine mammals have suffered from plastic pollution along the United States coast since 2009.

“What’s really sad is that many of these species that we studied are in danger of extinction or vulnerable to extinction under the Endangered Species Act,” Warner explained. “These are in addition to all the dangers they face from other threats to their survival. It is an additional stressor and sometimes the cause of death for these animals ingesting or getting entangled in plastic.”

Like Ratner, Warner had heartbreaking stories to share. There was a seal in Massachusetts that washed ashore in 2012 with a stomach inflamed from all the plastic it ingested; northern fur seals that had microplastics in their gut in 2015; a 2018 stellar young sea lion found in the Gulf of Alaska with a pack belt around its neck; a juvenile gray seal found in New York in 2019 with a plastic sandwich bag around its neck; and so on.

There was a seal in Massachusetts that washed ashore in 2012 with a stomach inflamed from all the plastic it had ingested.

While this kind of animal cruelty would be shocking, even if it happened to a simpler species, it’s especially noteworthy here because pinnipeds — that is, semi-aquatic and pin-footed carnivores like walruses, seals, and sea lions — are very smart. You might even call them the fat Einsteins of the ocean. However, the key to understanding their intellect is not to anthropomorphize the nature of “intelligence.” You may not find a seal that can master science like Sir Isaac Newton or write a Joni Mitchell quality song, but pinnipeds are incredibly impressive when it comes to performing the tasks nature has assigned them. As early as the first century, the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that seals “are capable of training, and can be taught to greet the public with their voice and at the same time bow, and when called by name to answer with a loud roar.”

That’s not to say all research points in that direction. A recent study seemed to contradict conclusions about seal intelligence by finding that they only have a short-term memory of 18 seconds. But for every study that throws cold water on the idea of ​​seal intelligence, there are others that come to the opposite conclusion. A 2016 article in the Frontiers in Neuroscience paper found that pinniped vocalizations are phylogenetically much closer to humans than birds, and that they are indeed more vocally flexible than primates.

“I think in humans we see intelligence as how similar they are to humans,” Ratner told Salon. “Seals and sea lions have a very different world. They live under the waves. They are incredibly smart adapted creatures. So we think about how sea lions in some parts of the world have learned to work together and hunt cooperatively for fish like tuna Those are really top predators and very fast, we’ve seen the diving and feeding abilities of animals like seals and sea lions which I feel sea lions are getting this kind of reputation as these really cute furry animals that live around but they are really top predators. “

Ratner noted that these pinnipeds can eat even small sharks and rays. “That’s what stands out to me. I think most about these animals, they’re big, they’re strong, and they’ve really found a way to be an apex predator in the ocean,” Ratner explained.

For more Salon articles on seals and plastic pollution:

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