Our oceans are heavily polluted by plastic. According to Conservation International, the numbers are staggering:
- Every day, around 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans.
- Every year, 8 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans.
- Currently, it is estimated that 150 million tons of plastic are in our oceans.
- By 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh all of the fish.
Manta rays are victims of plastic pollution because their eating habits cause them to ingest plastic, which has harmful effects.
Microplastics in the Ocean
Microplastics are very small plastics that are less than 5 mm – which is about the size of a sesame seed. They come from larger pieces of plastic that break down into smaller pieces, as well as from microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants in some beauty products, cleansers, and toothpastes. They are so small that they can pass through filtration systems, which is how they end up in oceans and other bodies of water.
Primary vs Secondary Microplastics
According to National Geographic, “primary microplastics are tiny particles designed for commercial use, such as cosmetics, as well as microfibers shed from clothing and other textiles, such as fishing nets.” They enter the water through product use, unintentionally due to spills, or even from washing clothing.
The same article says that “secondary microplastics are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles.” The breakdown is typically caused by waves, wind, and the sun’s radiation. Straws, and other single-use plastic items, are the primary source of secondary microplastics.
Issues with Plastics
There are many issues with plastics. First, standard water treatment facilities cannot remove all traces of microplastics.
In addition, plastics are not biodegradable – they don’t break down into harmless molecules. Instead, they take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose.
Furthermore, microplastics in the ocean can bind with other harmful chemicals – and are then ingested by marine life.
Where Microplastics are Found
We know that microplastics are in the oceans and other bodies of water – as well as in marine animals.
Microplastics have also been found in seafood, drinking water, beer, table salt, snow and ice, and even in the air and rain.
In fact, Nature.com reports that there is a level of exposure in most, if not all, species. It’s possible that people ingest up to 100,000 microplastic specks each day – it’s time to put a stop to plastic pollution!
How Manta Rays Eat Plastics While Feeding
Manta rays are filter feeders: that means they take in the plankton along with other organisms, and then filter out the nutritious bits – and poop or vomit out the rest.
Along with the plankton they need to survive, manta rays ingest a lot of plastics. A study in Frontiers in Marine Science found that in some areas, manta rays may ingest up to 63 pieces of plastic per hour of feeding.
How Plastic Pollution is Hurting Manta Rays
Plastics are further reducing the population of manta rays, which is already considered a globally threatened species.
Direct Effects of Ingesting Plastics while Feeding
When manta rays and other aquatic species consume microplastics, they don’t eat as much of the food that they need for energy to carry out life functions, and to survive.
The toxic chemicals and pollutants found in plastics enter the manta ray’s digestive system, which may prevent the digestion of actual food. Moreover, according to the Marine Megafauna Foundation, this exposure alters hormones that regulate manta rays’ metabolism, growth and development, and reproductive functions.
Larger plastics can be even more harmful because aside from blocking nutrient absorption, they can also damage the digestive tract.
Long-Term Effects of Plastics on Manta Rays
Microplastics have been found in zooplankton, the main food source for manta rays. Zooplankton that is exposed to microplastics produce half the number of larvae and the adults are smaller in size. So, as the levels of zooplankton decrease, there may not be enough food for manta rays.
Additionally, due to the altered hormones caused by plastics, manta rays have even lower rates of reproduction.
How to Help Improve the Plastic Problem for Manta Rays
According to Britannica, scientists are currently investigating the use of microorganisms to break down synthetic microplastic polymers. But, the amount of plastic in the ocean is skyrocketing, so we need to take action now!
Legislation to Protect Manta Rays
In 2015, President Obama banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products through the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
The Clean Water Act and Trash-Free Waters provides regulatory tools that are used to keep trash out of waterways. However, these tools are not mandated. Instead, these tools can be used in conjunction with other non-regulatory measures to reduce trash in the water.
This is a great start – but there is more work to do!
Ways Everyone Can Help Manta Rays
Manta rays need our help – and there are really simple things we all can do to reduce plastic pollution and save this beautiful species:
- Stop throwing garbage in water
- Stop using single-use plastic products
- Learn about ocean conservancy – here are some great websites
- Support The Ocean Cleanup or one of these ocean conservation organizations
- Become a Manta Ray Advocate (download the freebie)
Please join us in protecting manta rays from plastic pollution!