Posted on 11/01/2016 by Phillip Island Nature Parks

Marine debris entanglements high on researchers’ agenda 


Since 1997 researchers have observed 359 Australian fur seals entangled in marine debris at Seal Rocks, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Nature Parks’ researcher Dr Rebecca McIntosh in her paper recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. 

“Marine debris is predominantly made up of plastics and includes fishing gear as well as household items such as twine, cloth, balloon ribbons and plastic bags,” said Dr McIntosh. “Seals become entangled when the debris becomes caught around their body. It then tightens and cuts into them, causing much injury that typically leads to death.” 

The number of marine species reported to be affected by marine debris increased by 40% globally between 1997 and 2012. 

Dr McIntosh continued “Our research team visits Seal Rocks approximately every 2 months, and latest modelling shows us that we are only seeing a portion of actual entanglements. The real number of entangled seals in our waters could be as high as 300 every year, accounting for 1% of the total local seal population.” 

The research being conducted by Nature Parks was recently recognised internationally when World Animal Protection invited Dr McIntosh to present her entanglement research at a workshop entitled ‘Lose the Loop’ at the Marine Mammal Society Conference in San Francisco in December. The conference was attended by over 2500 delegates, discussing research and issues of global concern for marine mammals. 

The workshop provided researchers with the opportunity to meet with people from around the world, to share knowledge and ideas to move towards reducing the impact of this problem. One of the key discussion points during the conference was around how to encourage people around the world to adjust their behaviour to reduce our impacts. 

“Cultural change requires several components,” said Dr McIntosh. “Science is critical, but education and promotion are required to translate that science into real change. I am proud to work for an organisation such as Phillip Island Nature Parks that is employing a conservation management model that promotes these critical components.” 

A recent trip to Seal Rocks to monitor the seals included Nature Parks’  researchers observing 4 entangled seals, one of which they were able to rescue, while another managed to release itself, leaving behind the netting which had entangled it.  Researchers collected the netting and were able to identify it as entanglement material thanks to a photo taken by a passenger on a recent seal cruise.

“These types of collaborative efforts between members of the public and researchers show that science, education and promotion are leading to increased awareness, a great starting point to tackling this global issue”. 

Seal Entanglement Dec 2

Image courtesy of Trudi Pryor

Seal Entanglement Material Annotated Dec 2015 Cropped2