The Effect of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life

Plastic products play an essential role in people’s lives around the globe. Plastics are useful because they are durable and light weight. However, the durability of plastic and its ability to float on the water can endanger marine life., Taking a stroll along the beach paints a clear picture of our staggering addiction to the use of plastics. Moreover, the adverse impacts of plastic on marine life can be seen in the animal carcasses lying along the beaches. According to a Plymouth University study, plastic pollution affects 700 different marine species. Other estimates have suggested a death toll of at least 100 million marine animals annually, due to plastic pollution.

The Species Most Affected by Plastic Pollution in Marine Life

A staggering number of animals die as a result of plastic pollution in the marine environment. The list is so long that we cannot exhaust it in one article. What follows is a brief discussion of impacts on some of the most affected marine creatures.

Body of death fish

1. Fish

Fish and other marine animals that take in water through their gills increasingly face risks from minute particles of plastic debris. Research conducted by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom suggests that it is more difficult for an animal to get rid of waste captured in their gills, compared to items taken in by mouth.

In addition to the severe impacts of plastic pollution in various species of fish, the effects spill over to humans because we consume fish. Several research studies have found microfibers from plastic in that species that are commonly eaten by humans, including perch, brown trout, and Cisco. Plastic pollution in marine life ultimately affects every link in the food chain.

The New York Times reported a study aimed at calculating the amount of plastic waste that finds its way into the bodies of fish. The study found that 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic waste end up in fish in the North Pacific Ocean alone. In all, the debris affected 9 percent of the fish in the North Pacific.

Beautiful sea hawksbill

2. Sea Turtles

Countless sea turtles are injured or die each year as a result of entanglement in synthetic commercial fishing nets or other types of plastic pollution. As is the case with other marine species, sea turtles may can also ingest small plastic debris, mistaking floating bits of plastic for food.  Swallowing plastic waste may obstruct the turtle’s digestive system and can lead to death. Declines seen in populations of sea turtles is the result of a variety of factors including human over-exploitation; however, plastic pollution also adversely affects the turtles. A study conducted in 2013 found that close to 50 percent of sea turtles had swallowed plastics that contributed to their deaths.

sperm whale carcasses stranded

3. Dolphins and Whales

As is the case with sea turtles and other marine animals, marine mammals may mistakenly swallow plastic waste thinking they are consuming a potential source of food. Given the enormous size of some whales’ mouths, they may unintentionally ingest plastic debris along with the fish they are engulfing in the water column. Postmortem examinations of some whales have found large amounts of plastic waste in their digestive system.

Plastic pollution has adversely affected a number of species of cetaceans.  Obstructions may block or injure their stomachs, which can lead to starvation and death. A study in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin concluded that over half of cetaceans have swallowed plastics with up to twenty-two percent of these animals also at risk of losing their lives as a result of plastic pollution.

Seal Sea Lion breathing

4. Sea Lions and Seals

Plastic debris, including fishing lines, lures, and nets entangle sea lions and seals. Plastic packing bands and bags can also entrap seals and sea lions, leading to injury and even death. Unaware of the danger, young sea lions and may seals play with plastic pieces they find in the ocean. If the debris is swallowed or wraps around body parts, they may suffer serious injuries that can also lead to infections.

Rubber and plastic packing bands affect Steller Sea Lions even in remote areas. After eight years of monitoring in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska,  one study found plastic debris had entrapped 388 sea lions. Entanglements can be immediately fatal or cause prolonged suffering.

Seagull with plastic glass

5. Sea Birds

Marine debris injures or kills countless sea birds every year. One study found up to 90% of marine birds have ingested plastic debris at least once in their lives. One of the most affected species is the Laysan albatross. Studies have estimated that up to 98 percent of Laysan albatross have swallowed plastic debris, which can obstruct their digestive systems. They may encounter plastics while feeding as they plunge dive into the ocean to catch fish, squid, and other food. Other seabird species may skim the water surface using their beaks as scoops, picking plastic waste along the way. Plastic pollution also adversely impacts pelicans, gulls, and other marine birds which may mistake plastics for food or find themselves entangled as they dive or fish beneath the surface.


Plastic pollution negatively impacts almost every living organism in the world’s oceans. Because we are the source of plastic pollution, human beings must take action to improve the quality of life for marine animals. We should minimize the use of plastics in our daily lives and recycle the waste as much as possible. When visiting the shore, we need to make sure that plastics are properly disposed of. Even those living in landlocked areas need to be aware that balloons and plastic bags can blow for miles—creating risk for all aquatic creatures and should be safely disposed.

Plastic pollution in marine life is just one of the many issues our planet faces. At Pegasus Foundation, our number one concern is preserving our beautiful Earth and all its species. One way we do this is  by helping non-profit organizations create partnerships and work to educate the public as we join forces to build a more conscientious world. Contact us to find out how you can help!