Marine researchers spotted a dolphin suffocating in a plastic bag last week in Watamu, Kilifi county.
The incident, the first to be witnessed there, has raised concern on the safety of the millions of sea animals in the Indian Ocean waters due to the increased cases of plastic waste.
All over the world, marine debris have led to the deaths of sea animals as a result of suffocation.
Marine experts say as we produce more plastics and non-biodegradable products, our seas become choked with trash. It comes from landfills and ocean traffic, resulting in five large rubbish islands over the globe.
KENYA-SIZED TRASH ISLAND
The largest trash island or gyre in the Pacific Ocean is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is estimated to be the size of Kenya.
With this increase in the plastic and trash pollution threat, the negative impacts are huge, to our beaches, coral reefs and marine life, including sea turtles, birds and dolphins and whales.
Reports indicate that over 100,000 marine animals or more are killed each year by ingesting plastic bags, or entanglement and also suffocation.
On Wednesday last week, Watamu marine mammal researchers witnessed for the first time the potential devastating effects of plastic bags on one of Watamu’s resident populations of Indo Pacific bottlenose dolphins.
Marine conservationists and Kenya Wildlife Service found the young dolphin that had been trapped by plastic bag off the shores of Watamu.
Experts are worried about the use of plastics, which is becoming a major threat to the sea mammals and other species in the Indian Ocean.
Reports from the Kenya Marine Mammal network group revealed that the dolphin was spotted having been trapped. They tried to rescue it but only got half of the plastic bag.
The dolphin managed to free itself after struggling for quite some time by jumping out of the water several times in the watchful eyes of other dolphins that were in a group.
Researchers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Watamu Marine Association (WMA) who were on their daily routine in the Indian Ocean confiscated the half plastic bag
Initially they said the dolphin had been trapped around the head and blow hole forcing it to struggle hard to bite a hole and free itself.
Such a case normally leads to suffocation of the sea animal and often leads to death if unnoticed.
To them they were lucky to have witnessed such an incident but their worry is that due to the continuous dumping of plastic wastes and other marine debris, thousands of other animals could be suffering silently in the ocean.
Mike Mwang’ombe, WMA researcher with Kenya Wildlife Service said the incident was a lesson to everyone to rethink throwing rubbish into the ocean and realise the negative effect on the oceans, which is the home of marine animals.
“Seeing the dolphin trying to survive with a plastic bag on its head made me think how we need to be a voice for marine creatures and how important it is to become an ambassador for those animals suffering that cannot speak,” he said.
Images of the dolphin showed it leapt in the air several times and tore the bag in a half.
“Half the bag was left behind by the animal as he leapt in the air. This was a struggle lasting 10 minutes or more from when the whole head was encased initially,” said a WMA official in the Kenya Marine Mammal Network’s WhatsApp group conversation.
KWS scientist Lynn Njeri and WMA researchers witnessed the incident while on the Watamu marine excursions. They took half of the plastic bag that had been freed from the dolphin as the other half remained in the body.
She says plastic bags pose a great threat to marine life.
“It’s very difficult to control plastic bags finding their way to the sea and even terrestrial parks since they are usually blown by wind, posing danger, but a lot needs to be done to save our marine parks,” she says.
Njeri, a research assistant at the KWS, says apart from encouraging responsible plastic use, it is important to adopt policies and strategies that would minimise use of plastic bags, such promotion of eco-bags.
To the researchers, the incident was disturbing as other dolphins in the group seemed stressed by the way the other one was struggling.
“It was very troubling especially when the whole head was covered. We had cloud cover and the animals were moving unpredictabily, possibly stress-related,” said another marine researcher.
TRASH TO CASH INITIATIVE
The KWS, WMA and local hotels have long recognised the marine trash problem, and have been collecting beach rubbish at local, national and international Beach Clean-Ups with Ocean Sole and the Ocean Conservancy.
African Fund For Endangered Wildlife helped WMA build a Recycling Centre, branded “Eco-World Watamu”, where plastics and glass are creatively turned into art installations and crafts that are very popular with visitors.
It’s a huge task but turning trash to cash and keeping beaches clean in Watamu has helped in making a difference to their “backyard”.
For conservationists, their prayer is to see an ocean free from plastics that shall enable the marine life to coexist freely without any threats.
Dolphin watch of late has become one of Watamu’s major tourist attractions, which brings holiday makers from all corners of the world to watch them.
In Watamu, the dolphins are said to be contributing to an increase in the number of tourists by 10 per cent annually for the past four years.
WMA officials say dolphins are usually found in the deep sea within the marine protected area and reportedly prefer the area for feeding, relaxing, breeding and socialising.
Each week, the experts twice survey the waters to identify the dolphins and observe their behavioural patterns.
Researchers also conduct surveys to ensure the dolphins are not harassed by those who go to watch them in the waters.
They also conduct trainings on dolphin watch to the locals to ensure their natural lifestyles are not interfered with.
“There are many dolphins in Watamu, 90 per cent of our surveys have proven fruitful. What is required is for the locals to know how to handle them whenever they go with tourists,” said Jimmy Kahindi from the WMA.
He said their research had also found some dolphins with cuts and marks, which he attributed to illegal fishing.
The dolphins, he said, usually feed on fish but are easily trapped by fishing nets.
Despite the efforts to collect plastic wastes and awareness campaigns to help keep marine debris off beaches, the situation is still worrying.
CALL FOR REFORMS
Conservationists have attributed the spread of plastics and debris in the beaches along the coastal line to weak structures and waste management policies.
They say authorities have failed to come up with plans to ensure proper beach maintenance to avoid spread of solid wastes, which threaten marine life.
David Kirk, a resident of Kenya who is keen on environmental issues, said in one of the beach clean-ups that the public should be educated on the importance of waste management to help conserve the environment and protect marine life for posterity.
He said the Turtle and some birds species are endangered due to the spread of plastics and other debris dumped by human beings in the beaches.
He said the Kilifi government should identify a dumping site and set up a recycling plant to recycle the plastic wastes.
Once that is done, he said, the authorities should set up dumping bins with different colours for dumping various wastes.
“There should be dumping bins with colours like red for plastics, black for bottles and green for general litter placed at strategic points. This will make it easier for the wastes to be sorted easily ,” he said.
Kirk said in Europe, the system had proven successful and it is illegal for one to dump wastes carelessly.