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Photographer reveals seahorse swimming in plastic polluted seas

Posted: Friday 6th October 2017 by Conservation-Apprentices

Copyright - Justin HofmanSeahorse on marine litter. Copyright Justin Hofman

Here at Cumbria Wildlife Trust we are no strangers to the horrors of marine waste, but even we were shocked at this tiny seahorse with its tail wrapped around a plastic cotton bud…

Justin Hofman’s disturbing picture of a seahorse clinging to a cotton bud has really brought home a problem that we all know about but that only seems to be getting worse.

Seahorses’ prehensile tails allow them to grip onto weeds or bits of coral, which prevents them from being washed away by strong currents and waves. They are not strong swimmers so often ride the currents in this manner.

The picture became a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the year competition and subsequently went viral as more and more people were shocked and moved by the picture’s poignant message.

Hofman described the response to his photograph as “incredible”, but he hopes “everybody’s attention span is long enough to make [real change] happen.”

Although Hofman’s viral photograph was taken near the town of Sumbawa Besar on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, the issue of marine litter is as true in Cumbria as anywhere.

Although all sorts of litter enter the ocean, the ocean’s biggest burden is made up of plastic items such as plastic bags, cups, bottles, balloons, and of course, the tiny plastic middles of cotton buds. Fishing gear is also a problem; almost 2,000 tonnes of fishing gear is left in oceans every single day!

Surprisingly, (if you’ve seen the amount of litter on some beaches), only 15% of the litter is thought to actually wash up on shore. The rest is broken down and sinks to the sea floor, or floats and accumulates to create monstrous patches of rubbish on top of the sea. In the past 15 years, the amount of litter washing up on beaches in the U.K. has almost doubled.

To sea creatures, human carelessness becomes deadly. Hungry turtles often eat plastic bags, mistaking them for tasty jellyfish – in fact half of the world’s turtles have ingested plastic. This clogs up their insides and causes them to starve to death.

Sea birds have started to line their nests with discarded nylon fishing line. Heartbreakingly, their chicks become entangled in this and die. Playful seals may think a loop of cargo strapping is great to play with, until it becomes stuck around their neck, getting tighter each year as the seal grows.

Ghost fishing gear’ is the name given to damaged fishing nets or lines that have been thrown overboard. Animals become trapped in this and drown, starve or fatally injure themselves. The ghost fishing gear continues to catch and kill anything in its path for a very long time. More than half of endangered marine species have been observed to be entangled in, or ingesting, marine litter.

In the caption of this photograph on Hofman’s Instagram page (@justinhofman), he asks

“What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?”

Luckily, the fate of our oceans is not completely out of our hands. Beginning with something very relevant to this picture, you could start by ‘switching the stick’, and avoiding cotton buds with plastic middles. When you’re finished, put them in the bin, not the toilet. In fact, don’t flush anything down the toilet other than what you’re meant to.

By choosing products with minimal packaging, avoiding single-use products (water bottles, plastic food packaging, coffee cups etc.), making use of the free recycling facilities available to everyone, choosing products made of recycled materials, not buying products that contain microbeads, (look out for ingredients in cosmetic products starting with ‘poly’, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and polymethyl methacrylate), and not using plastic bags. Reducing the amount of fish in your diet will also have a hugely positive impact on the sea and its struggling inhabitants.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust also host regular beach cleans at South Walney nature reserve. By clearing the beach of litter regularly we can at least make sure that nothing washed up returns to the sea.

From personal experience, doing something practical like a beach clean can make you feel a lot better about a situation you previously felt helpless about. 

Click here for Beach Clean Winter 2017 dates

Check out Justin Hofman's website to see more amazing marine photography.

We'd love to hear what you think of the photograph, just leave a comment below.

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