John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A common packing strap is responsible for more than half of Alaska's Stellar sea-lion entanglements.
Anybody recall the environmental dangers of six-pack rings? Thanks to photos like this one, the plastic doohickeys became one of the biggest monsters of the marine-plastics debate, said to ensnare animals and painfully constrict the life out of them.
While the rings no doubt were responsible for many deadly entanglements, their deleterious effect on sea life was probably less than you might remember. For many years now, the manufacturers of these rings have been making them from biodegradable plastic, diminishing the chance they'll make trouble in the wild. And compared to the suffering caused by torn nets, old fishing lines, bait bags and other fishing-industry garbage, the rings have been a relatively minor offender. The Straight Dope looked into their environmental footprint in 1999 and determined that the "six-pack-ring threat has been greatly exaggerated":
According to the Center for Marine Conservation, only 50,000 of the 10.4 million items collected during the 1998 cleanup (0.48 percent) were six-pack rings. Between 1988 and 1998, U.S. cleanups uncovered 1,089 instances of animal entanglement, but only 72 (7 percent) involved six-pack rings. The real offenders were monofilament fishing line, fishhooks, and lures, implicated in 461 cases (42 percent). Add in crab and lobster traps, nets, and related equipment, and we find that fishing gear accounts for almost half of all entanglements.
But now that one highly individualized consumer object has been mostly exonerated in modern marine deaths, is it time to nominate another? Sure, why not – the U.S. government even has a candidate in waiting. It's the common packing band, the super-durable kind that secures boxes like this one:
At NOAA's Marine Debris Blog, Asma Mahdi recently laid out just why packing straps can be nasty:
Young seal and sea lion pups tend to play with marine debris, not knowing the harm they can cause. Packing bands are sometimes found in the marine environment tangled up in a big ball, which could certainly be alluring to a curious sea lion.
When they do get wrapped around or embedded in a seal or sea lion’s neck, the wound can be horrific and expose the animal to infection.
These specific items are linked to more than half of entanglements in Alaska's threatened Stellar sea-lion population, writes Mahdi. They're joined by a host of other killing detritus like discarded rope, fishing hooks, nets, monofilament line, and heavy-duty rubber bands used to keep crab pots shut. If you'd like to see the bloody damage these items can inflict on adorable marine mammals, visit NOAA's pinniped-entanglement page or watch this documentary supported by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Needless to say the images are gruesome, distressing, and likely to lurk in your brain for a while.
So what can the average Joe do about packing bands? Here's advice from NOAA that'll sound familiar to anybody around during the six pack-ring controversy: "CUT ANY LOOP that may become marine debris."
Top image: A ringed seal entangled in plastic. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)