Harris sperm whale could have consumed plastic discarded off Lochaber coast

The carcass of the young adult male sperm whale lies on Luskentyre beach on Harris. Photograph: SMASS NO Harris whale plastic 02
The carcass of the young adult male sperm whale lies on Luskentyre beach on Harris. Photograph: SMASS NO Harris whale plastic 02

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The 100kg lump of discarded fishing gear and other rubbish discovered inside the stomach of a dead Sperm whale found on a Harris beach could have come from anywhere in the ocean, but some of it could also just as easily have come from the sea off the coast of Lochaber.

So say the experts from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), an organisation that investigates the deaths of whales and dolphins, and who conducted the necropsy on the whale on Luskentyre beach to try and determine the cause of death.

The sub-adult male Sperm whale had live stranded and then died on the sandbanks last Thursday morning.

In the whale’s stomach was approximately 100kg of marine debris – a whole range of plastic, including sections of net, bundles of rope, plastic cups, bags, gloves, packing straps and tubing.

According to SMASS, all this material was in a huge ball in the stomach and some of it it looked like it had been there for some time.

Some of the rubbish discovered inside the whale's stomach. Photograph: SMASS NO F49 Harris whale plastic
Some of the rubbish discovered inside the whale’s stomach. Photograph: SMASS

In  a statement, SMASS commented: ‘The animal wasn’t in particularly poor condition, and while it is certainly plausible that this amount of debris was a factor in its live stranding, we actually couldn’t find evidence that this had impacted or obstructed the intestines.

‘This amount of plastic in the stomach is nonetheless horrific, must have compromised digestion, and serves to demonstrate, yet again, the hazards that marine litter and lost or discarded fishing gear can cause to marine life.’

The corpse of the 26-ton animal was buried on the beach as it could not be removed.

One of those from SMASS involved was strandings co-ordinator Nick Davison, who told the Lochaber Times this week: ‘The rubbish could have come from anywhere from the seas around the Azores  to northern Norway.

‘It did not include just fishing gear but a right mixture of all sorts of plastic waste and, while some of it had clearly been there for some time, absolutely some of it could have been thrown away on the coast of Lochaber.

‘A lot of people are pointing the finger at the fishing industry but it is not entirely their fault looking at the sort of plastic consumed.’

And Mr Davison urged everyone who sees rubbish and plastic while out and about on the shoreline of Lochaber and elsewhere to pick it up and deposit in a bin.

‘It all makes a difference,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to collect a 10kg bag full of old fishing rope, even just one piece of plastic removed off a beach and put in a bin will make a difference.

‘The amount of rubbish and plastic inside this animal was quite shocking to be honest.’

Kate Forbes MSP, whose constituency includes Lochaber and Skye, called the amount of plastic in the sperm whale’s stomach ‘really disturbing’, and yet again highlighted the problem of marine litter.


Lochaber and Skye MSP Kate Forbes, who launched a campaign last year to ban single use plastic straws, called the discovery of the rubbish inside the whale ‘disturbing’.

‘No plastic waste is generated in a vacuum and it unfortunately does strangle wildlife, spoil the scenery and give us all a massive problem to deal with,’ she told the Lochaber Times.

‘There’s been some great initiatives to phase out plastic waste but there’s always more we can do together.

‘The sea does not respect borders, so whether we are in Arisaig, Aberdeen or the Azores, we must do our bit for the environment.’