Preventable marine deaths

Preventable marine deaths

At the very moment Thailand has begun to worry about massive imports of mostly dangerous foreign waste, the most dramatic proof possible exposes one of the country's most dangerous exports. Marine biologists on the weekend released details and highly disturbing photographs of the death last week of a pilot whale in the Gulf off Songkhla province. An autopsy by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) after the animal drifted ashore and died on the beach showed the cause of death. It either starved or strangled on more than 80 large plastic bags.

This is no longer a rare event. While the DMCR has provided photographic and written details on the whale's death, plastic is killing sea life at a disturbing rate. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, marine biologist and lecturer at Kasetsart University, estimates that an average of about one sea animal -- whales, turtles, dolphins and the like -- dies every day. Most, as with the whale, ingest so much plastic they are incapable of eating and digesting nourishment.

The case of the expired pilot whale last weekend also exposed another inconvenient truth. The popular campaign to limit or ban supermarket and department store plastic bags would not have helped. Before it died, experts and volunteers helped the whale regurgitate five bags. Another 80 were found in its stomach and intestinal tract. All were the large-sized, generally black bags commonly used by both households and commercial firms to bag large collections of garbage. No hand-sized "grocery bag" was recovered during the extensive autopsy, results of which have been posted on social media.

This doesn't excuse the use and careless disposal of tens of millions of such bags. Rather, the death of the whale illustrates -- and only in a minor way at that -- the scope of this problem of littering on a massive scale. Not only did the whale's autopsy fail to show any small plastic bags, it showed no other types of dangerous, sometimes toxic plastic waste in the Gulf and Andaman Sea.

Often, such waste floats within the sea, suspended by the salt water between the surface and the bottom. In other words, it floats exactly where marine animals and fish feed. The whale's autopsy found no plastic bottles, no broken appliances, no electronics waste, no discarded plastic boxes. All of that plastic waste, and much more, is present offshore, and killing undersea life in large and important numbers.

A number of recent studies have confirmed that the majority of such dangerous and polluting waste is washed out to sea from the land. Thailand, by actual measurement, has been identified as the sixth largest such polluter on the planet. To any semi-observant person, there is no mystery why. The lack of proper disposal of dozens of tonnes of rubbish daily has caused roadside and kerbside disposal by families and firms from one end of the country to the other. A bag of rubbish dumped beside a Bangkok street is easily carried by rains into a klong, then rather quickly out to sea.

Two initial yet difficult steps are necessary to even begin to slow and then to curb this dangerous trend. On one side, there must be better, more punitive enforcement when necessary to stop thoughtless and harmful rubbish disposal. On the other, cities and provinces must update rubbish collection from homes and businesses. It is no easy task, but government is wholly responsible for managing and regulating the nation's trash disposal, and ensuring it never spills from dedicated and carefully supervised dumps and incinerator areas.

Without doubt, waste imports from abroad must be regulated or banned under careful watch. But the country is also an international polluter and responsible for preventable deaths of marine life. These problems are separate but highly important.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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