Graphic images of four single-use plastic bags being pulled from the stomach of an emaciated tiger shark in South Coast waters has added weight to a push for a blanket ban on the bags in Australia.
“The evidence is starting to mount that we just cannot throw away plastic as we have been,” independent marine biologist Dr Murray MacDonald said after viewing the video.
“We have to rethink how we use plastic. The evidence is starting to mount rapidly that we just cannot throw away plastic as we have been.”
Dr MacDonald said the floating bags were most likely confused by the shark for squid, part of the animal’s natural diet.
“Many sharks are scavengers, but in this particular case the bags were probably floating full of water and it thought they were squid,” Dr MacDonald said.
“For smaller fish feeding on plankton the same problems occur with microplastics. As people look they’re finding plastic in every ocean in the world.”
The former fisheries scientist said the animal would not have been able to digest the bags, leaving it feeling full and slowly starving to death.
I recorded it to document this kind of thing. The word needs to get out.Commercial fisherman Jason 'Trapman' Moyce
“Those bags in the shark would make it weaker and weaker because it’s not getting any energy,” he said.
“I’ve seen the same in sea birds. The microplastics are an increasing problem, because before it was only the obvious larger pieces, which we now know become smaller and smaller.”
The video was captured by Bermagui commercial fisherman Jason “Trapman” Moyce, who said he noticed the “very sickly” looking shark, with its stomach bloated, while fishing for bronze whalers in March this year.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before.The plastic bags had been in there a while,” the 45-year-old said.
“I recorded it to document this kind of thing. The word needs to get out.
“This region is supposed to be pristine and non-polluted. If this is happening, what chance has the ocean got?
“There’s not many things that aren’t made out of plastic these days.”
His video has gathered almost 300,000 views, with many people sharing their shock at the confronting images.
“We're killing our planet. I can remember as a child getting shopping in brown paper bags,” Jean Stirling posted.
Dr MacDonald said the issue of ingested plastic is quickly needing to be addressed, and is “unfortunately becoming more frequent”.
In April, nearly 30 kilograms of plastic was discovered in the stomach of a beached juvenile sperm whale in Spain, and in 2017 Norwegian scientists found over 30 plastic bags inside the stomach of a Cuvier's beaked whale.
“Soon there will be a greater mass of plastic than life in the ocean,” Dr MacDonald said.
“It shows we have to get rid of single-use plastic bags.”
Alternatives to plastic are growing in popularity, as consumers look to lessen their impact on the environment around them.
Driven to change consumer habits, 33-year-old Anneliese Hallam recently quit her job at the Methodist Ladies' College Marshmead Campus in Mallacoota to sell her MiBoo bamboo alternative to plastic straws.
“The key is getting people to think about as many alternatives to plastic as possible,” she said.
“All of us well-meaning humans are part of the problem, and we’re all accountable.
“It’s the little actions we take that will soon become normal, and people change behaviours because of what other people do.”
In 2015 a disturbing eight minute video of a plastic straw being painfully removed from the nose of a turtle by American marine biologist Christine Figgener went viral.
Plastic straws can become entangled in marine animals and are also eaten by fish, and Ms Hallam said many consumers and retailers are now looking to make an anti-plastic statement.
“The best alternative is no straw, but people like using them,” she said.
“It’s about creating a culture of reusing, which is my dream.”
Dr MacDonald said the NSW government is behind other states and territories, and should ban single-use plastic bags outright, and not rely on the private sector to regulate their use.
“There are various industries that use plastic who won’t ban it until everyone is required to, as competitive advantages are involved,” he said.
“Beyond that we have to start thinking about plastic products as not being replaceable, they must be durable and used for a long time.
“We’re only just finding out the extent of the problem, and seafood is basic subsistence food all around the world.”