Editorial: Pollution levels prove it's time to confront our future

Rescuers bid a tearful farewell to the first of two pygmy whales to be euthanased.
Rescuers bid a tearful farewell to the first of two pygmy whales to be euthanased.

Humans can be pretty bad to our environment and the creatures that live within it.

There's no doubt that we are the major polluters of the planet and that we are slowly poisoning our oceans, with our use of plastic a major contribution to the denigration of the world's seas.

There are huge islands of plastic developing in some parts of the oceans as the rubbish we throw away ends up in the sea and gathers together.

There is now clear evidence that our plastic use and subsequent pollution is having a huge detrimental effect on marine life too.

Read more: Whale strandings in Kaitaia stretch DoC staff limits
Volunteers rally to rescue stranded whales

Earlier this month, Indonesian villagers found the rotting carcass of a 9.5m sperm whale that had a large amount of plastic waste in its stomach.

'The rescue was an outstanding effort and something that everybody who helped should be very proud of, their actions tried to save wildlife when it's often our actions, or lack of actions, that kill them. It's also something the rest of us can take comfort from.'

Rescuers from Wakatobi National Park found the dead whale near the park in Southeast Sulawesi province after receiving a report from environmentalists that villagers were beginning to butcher it, park chief Heri Santoso said.

Santoso said researchers from wildlife conservation group WWF and the park's conservation academy found about 5.9kg of plastic waste in the animal's stomach: 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, two flip-flops, a nylon sack and more than 1000 other assorted pieces of plastic.

But two whale strandings in the Far North in the past week have shown that we humans can also do our best to help our marine life when it is in trouble.

The stranding and death of a 15m sperm whale is an example of how unhealthy our oceans are, according to a witness.

The whale came ashore near Dick Urlich Drive on Tokerau Beach, Karikari Peninsula, on Friday afternoon and was tossed about by the waves.

Department of Conservation staff and locals stayed with the giant mammal but it died early on Saturday.

Robert Urlich, who was born on Tokerau Beach, said sperm whales used to frequent the area but the whaling industry almost completely decimated the population.

After commercial whaling stopping in 1923, it took a long time for the population to recover.

Whale deaths had increased in recent years, Urlich said.

"Recently, there have been a number of whale deaths worldwide; in fact, I think there have been an increase in the number of whale deaths and we don't know why that should be."
Urlich suspects the deaths are a result of microplastics which have been found in the ocean.

The effects were devastating, he said.

Then on Monday evening the Department of Conservation called on volunteers to head to Rarawa Beach, 60km north of Kaitaia, to help refloat a pod of rare pygmy whales which had stranded a day earlier near the top of Ninety Mile Beach.

The call was answered by more than 300 people — including locals, iwi, schoolchildren, DOC staff and whale rescue groups — who descended on the beach from around the North Island.

Sadly two of the 10 whales died on Ninety Mile and another two had to be euthanised on Rarawa Beach as they could not be refloated and their distress was causing the other six whales to head back into shore after they were released back into the sea.

At edition time five of the six surviving whales had to be euthanised after they came back ashore at Great Exhibition Bay while the last whale was offshore and being monitored.

So while the rescue operation has proved to be largely fruitless it was an amazing show of just how much we humans are prepared to pitch in to help marine life. It will also give the experts, DOC and Project Jonah vital training for future whale strandings.

Hundreds answered the call from across Northland and further afield to come and help refloat the whales. It was for many a spontaneous reaction to the call to arms — they wanted to help these beautiful creatures and hopefully stop them from dying.

Many spent hours in the water trying to keep the animals afloat and after the surviving six had been taken out to see they stood in a long line, many arm-in-arm, splashing and making lots of noise to try to prevent the whales from returning to shore.

As they left, kuia Wikitoria Makiha performed a karakia for the surviving whales in the hope they would stay out at sea.

The rescue was an outstanding effort and something that everybody who helped should be very proud of. Their actions tried to save wildlife when it's often our actions, or lack of actions, that kill them. It's also something the rest of us can take comfort from.

But the rescue is also something that must make us all confront our actions and how we contribute to the pollution that pours into the sea and puts out precious marine life at risk.

The Government just confirmed that all single-use plastic bags will be banned by the middle of next year.

The ban, which will apply to all retailers, will include all bags under 70 microns thick. That means all single-use plastic shopping bags, such as those issued by many of the country's chain stores, will disappear.

Because of their thickness, the ban will also include some multi-use nylon and polythene. Compostable and degradable plastic bags will not avoid the ban, but barrier bags for meat, fish, fruit and vegetables will still be allowed.

It's a small start, but we must all do more to cut down our use of plastic use or we will see more whales and other marine life die with their stomachs clogged with plastic that we so easily throw away.

If we don't, it's highly likely that our children or grandchildren won't see whales or other mammals in our waters off Northland.

And we don't want that to happen surely?

- Northland Age

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