Zero in on Plastics
by Devina Anglingdarma • 9 August 2021

The story of research on plastic debris impact on marine life in Davao, the Philippines, and its vicinity began with a fateful meeting between a marine biologist taking his students on a museum tour and a science museum director who happened to be their guide. 

Once they reached the marine biodiversity floor, Darrell Blatchley, the president, and director of the D’Bone Museum showed some of his findings to the group led by Neil Angelo Abreo. These findings were of various marine mammal skeletons, the type of plastic the animal had ingested, in addition to how plastic waste is killing the animals. 

“I thought to myself we should document as much as possible of what types of plastics are usually ingested, what species ingest plastics, where [the plastic and species] are located, et cetera. This way, we can have a baseline or data about it,” said Abreo, who is currently completing his master’s degree in Marine Biodiversity at Davao del Norte State College.

His idea to begin marine plastic research initially came from a journal article by Jenna Jambeck, a renowned biologist from the University of Georgia. Jambeck once wrote that the Philippines was the world’s third-largest contributor to plastic debris in the ocean.

“So, I was out to either prove or disprove her claim. And meeting Darrell Blatchley made it more possible to conduct research in marine plastic,” Abreo said.

Blatchley added that  in 2012, he recovered a Deraniyagala’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon hotaula) that was only announced as a new species a year later. As if the staggering fact was not alarming enough, Blatchley added, “Among 71 dead whales and dolphins we recovered in the past 11 years, 59 whales and dolphins, died directly due to fishing nets and plastic garbage inside their stomachs in the Davao Gulf alone.” 

Since their collaboration began, Abreo has documented and written their findings in his research papers – while Blatchley performed necropsies and told the life journey of the carcasses to his museum visitors through the visual display of their skeletons.

Typically, plastics found within the creatures they had discovered so far are food wrappings, but other types of plastics are equally harmful. For instance, Blatchley found a Pygmy Sperm Whale that died due to a small candy wrapper blocking its’ digestive tract. The museum owner also discovered 40-kilogram calcified plastic inside the gastrointestinal of a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. The whale, whose mouth is only about 2 inches wide, could not possibly digest the hardened plastic in one sitting. Most likely, the accumulated plastic created a condensation that killed the whale slowly from the inside. 

The Importance of Research and Necropsy in Marine Biology 

Abreo hoped his papers would encourage his counterparts in the Philippines and other ASEAN countries to conduct more studies on marine plastic pollution in their respective regions. He said he was concerned about the low number of research on marine biology, which has led to the scarcity of data comparison.

“Before, when I did my research to write a review paper, I only found one paper that explored the impact of marine litter on the movement of an intertidal gastropod from the Philippines. That is why I try to document as much as possible, so I can have data that would eventually help the legislators and government to actually formulate a law to tackle the marine plastic issue or to bring it to their awareness that the problem exists not only in other countries but also in our backyard,” Abreo asserted.

Voicing the same concern, Blatchley said the lack of funding to support research on marine biology limited the researchers’ ability to conduct research and project longevity. He observed that there is not enough incentive to become a marine biologist. In his opinion, it deters people from considering marine biology as a career path in the Philippines. From the two marine experts’ testimony, it is apparent that the lack of marine biologists would place us back in the vicious cycle, where the shortage of data leads to a lack of awareness. 

“As long as the government regards environmental research as insignificant, the marine ecology situation in the Philippines will continue to decline, and more species will be lost,” Blatchley said.

Blatchley praised how Abreo amplifies the voices of marine activists like himself on the impact of sea plastic pollutions on oceanic creatures. Consequently, because of Abreo’s scientific findings, actionable steps could be taken by the government. 

Meanwhile, necropsy or known as a non-human autopsy is just as crucial. The dissection could find what causes an animal to die and give people hints into an environmental hazard that needs to be changed. Hence, it is vital to dissect animal remains before their bodies were thrown back into the sea, burned, or buried by the locals.

“We lose all scientific information not just on why [a marine creature] died, but anything else that relates to their death,” said the recipient of the Datu Bago Award, which is given by the city government for exemplary citizens.

The documentation on his countless necropsies has given us the proof the general public and policymakers needed to see the dreadful impact of meagre day-to-day plastic bags and wrappers on animals.

Equally significant is the role of Blatchley’s museum, which received UNESCO’s Plastic Initiative Award. By providing a visual display of Blatchley and Abreo’s findings, the museum pronounces the danger of plastic to marine life and raises public awareness on why we need to stop irresponsible littering. 

How to Save Marine Life

Blatchley said, “We have a lady that goes clean [canals] out once a week, but cleaning it does not fix the problem. [She] should not be the nanny for every irresponsible litterer in the country.” 

Clockwise from top left: Michikazu Kojima and Devina Anglingdarma from RKC-MPD ERIA, Darrell Blatchley and Neil Angelo Abreo.

Indeed, cleanliness should not be the responsibility of a sole person. We need to find ways to change our communal littering habit as a region. Thus, Abreo and Blatchley recommended the following policies that could help the government of the Philippines to tackle marine plastic litter in the country.

  • Education. Children learn early and by example. Lack of education regarding littering could cause people to keep a generational habit of throwing their garbage improperly. 
  •  Reinforcement of plastic segregation. Since six years ago, the Philippines conducted segregation on household wastes based on different categories. However, all the sorted waste ended up in the same dump truck – making people see no value in sorting their trash. With better execution of plastic sorting law and detailed waste management plan, it would not be impossible for the Philippines to reduce the need for more landfills. 
  • More plastic recycling facilities. There are very limited proper plastic recycling facilities in the entire country, which means most plastics proceed to landfills. The government recently purchased a new land as a landfill which they claimed could sustain waste until 2030. However, not even halfway through the year, now the destined place is almost at its maximum capacity.
  • Give an incentive for people to collect plastic. “In the States and European countries, mostly you take [plastic containers] and put them in a [recycling] machine. A person that may not have a job would walk the beaches picking them up if it had a value,” Blatchley stated. Giving value to plastic will provide income for people who need them. Most importantly, it could help to cultivate the habit of picking up our plastic from its value.
  • Value more research in freshwater biota and health implications. One of Abreo’s journals talks about the potential of plastic changing the hydrodynamics between fresh and salt-water environments. He elaborated that plastics create natural blockage from waterways like rivers to the sea. In theory, plastic blockages are bound to change in the dynamic between fresh and seawater environments, especially for creatures who live in both. The freshwater condition also impacts the ocean, so Abreo hoped to see more research on the effect of plastics in rivers. Once a scientific background is available, it would be easier to create campaign awareness for people to be more mindful about where and how they throw their household waste.