As the Japanese whaling fleet once again heads down to the whale sanctuary in Antarctica, scientists onboard Sea Shepherd’s research sailing vessel, the R/V Martin Sheen, have recently finished a month long whale research campaign in Mexico. Both of these endeavors claim to be research, however only the scientists onboard the R/V Martin Sheen are using non-lethal methods to collect samples from the whales.
The R/V Martin Sheen crew worked alongside marine biologists from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur in Mexico to monitor the health of the Gulf of California marine environment. The scientists’ research focuses on the impact of microplastics on fin whales in the Gulf of California. Microplastics are plastic fragments (<5 mm) that are becoming more prevalent in the marine environment. They are mostly the result of degrading plastics, such as plastic bottles or microbeads found in cosmetic products. Some alternatives that minimize plastic degradation are reusable bottles or cosmetics that use natural exfoliants. These plastic particles are often found in abundance at the sea surface, which is also where many marine organisms live and feed. Additionally, microplastics can be comprised of phthalates, polypropylene, polyethylene, as well as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which accumulate in blubber and can be endocrine disruptors.
Fin whales are one of the largest filter feeders on earth and ingest microplastics while feeding. While the impacts of microplastics on baleen whales and their population viability are mostly unknown, other studies have shown increased toxicological stress in the whales. It is important that this type of research be continued to better understand the effects of microplastics on baleen whales in Mexico.
While it is important for research to take samples from whales—to study genetics and for conservation, there is a general consensus in the scientific community that it is unnecessary to hunt and kill whales for research. Scientists onboard the R/V Martin Sheen took skin biopsies from the whales by shooting a foam dart at the whale. Once the dart made contact with the whale a small plug of skin and blubber was taken and the dart bounced off into the water. We used a net to retrieve the dart and the scientist prepared the sample for storage in a sanitary liquid nitrogen container. In addition to the biopsies, photos of the whales were used for identification, allowing the scientists to identify whales at a later time. In different areas of the Gulf of California, the R/V Martin Sheen towed a small device called a ‘manta trawl’, which collected small debris in the water like microplastics. All of these data collection techniques were effective and did not disrupt or harm the whales.
Throughout this research campaign, our team observed several different marine species such as fin whales, pilot whales, orcas, sperm whales, a humpback whale, a bryde’s whale, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, hammerhead sharks, jumping rays, sea lions and green sea turtles. The Gulf of California is clearly home to a variety of animals and it is important that we continue our actions to protect them from the harmful impacts of microplastics and illegal fishing, all of which can be done by using non-lethal research methods.
The R/V Martin Sheen is continuing to protect wildlife in the Gulf of California by keeping the vaquita refuge safe from deadly gillnets in Operation Milagro II.
Nicole D’Entremont, Marine Scientist
Operation Milagro II
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