Beloved baby dugong's death puts spotlight on plastic threat to marine life

Marium’s death has resonated in the UAE, home to the world’s second-largest population of dugongs

(FILES) This file picture taken on May 24, 2019 shows Mariam the dugong as she is cared for by park officials and veterinarians from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre on Libong island, Trang province in southern Thailand. A sick baby dugong whose fight for recovery won hearts in Thailand and cast a spotlight on ocean conservation died from an infection quickened by bits of plastic lining her stomach, officials said on August 17, 2019.    
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Marine conservationists have decried the death of a beloved baby dugong found with a stomach filled with plastic, telling of the need to turn the tide against single-use items.

Experts said the fate of the orphaned creature, affectionately named Marium by her rescuers in Thailand, has become repeated across the globe.

A post-mortem examination of Marium’s carcass revealed plastic debris in her intestine, including one piece measuring up to 20 centimetres.

She died as a result of shock, inflammation and a build-up of pus in her stomach, the vets who treated her said.

“All too often, we are hearing of beloved marine animals and birds dying from the ingestion of plastic debris,” said Natalie Banks, from the marine conservation group Azraq.

“This should cause us all a great deal of alarm, due to concerns about how plastics are impacting the health of both humans and animals.”

This should cause us all a great deal of alarm, about how plastics are impacting the health of both humans and animals

The dugong became a hit in Thailand after images of biologists embracing and feeding her with milk and seagrass went viral on social media.

Her death has put the spotlight on the immediate need to reduce plastic pollution, globally and locally.

“During our activities in the UAE, we have come across dead seabirds and marine life,” Ms Banks said.

“We have seen first-hand how plastic pollution is impacting the health of our marine environment, particularly abandoned fishing lines and nets.”

Creatures on land are also suffering, she said.

“We have seen similar cases with terrestrial animals, such as camels that live in the deserts within the UAE,” Ms Banks said.

Dugongs are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are about 100,000 dugongs around the world, including 3,000 in the UAE.

One of the main factors linked to their endangered status includes loss of seagrass habitat caused by coastal development or water pollution. It has led to problems with breeding and caused dugongs to become victims of bycatch, the accidental entanglement in fishing nets.

Abu Dhabi, March 23, 2018.  Beach clean up at Lulu Island by volunteers.
Victor Besa / The National
Reporter:  Nick Webster
Plastics clogging up beaches wash into the ocean and kill marine life. Victor Besa / The National

Referred to as sea cows, the unusual-looking mammals have been protected under UAE law since 1999.

Winston Cowie, marine policy manager at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, said Marium’s death has touched professionals in marine conservation.

“The news really resonated with the agency because the UAE has the second-largest population of dugongs, behind Australia,” he said.

“Every time you hear news like this, whether it involves a whale, turtle or any kind of wildlife, it is shocking but incredibly motivating.

“We need to start moving now to prevent further harm to our land and oceans.”

Conducting monitoring work on dugongs over the past 15 years, EAD has carried out aerial surveys and interacted closely with the notoriously shy mammals.

“When there is any pressure or threat on dugongs, like illegal use of fishing nets, our agency has responded with the community by launching initiatives, like beach clean-ups to clear plastic pollution that puts wildlife at risk.”

To reduce the impacts of plastic pollution, conservation organisations urged people to refuse to take single-use plastics or to use them where possible.

“Single-use plastics make up the majority of debris we find during beach cleans,” Ms Banks said.

If marine conditions continue to worsen, it could lead to the eventual extinction of the dugong.

Mr Cowie said the knock-on effects of this could be disastrous to ocean life.

“It could lead to a whole ecosystem shift,” he said.

With a diet that depends on seagrass meadows, dugongs boost seagrass growth by fertilising the seabed with their dung.

Just like coral reefs and mangrove forests, seagrass meadows are a vital part of coastal marine ecosystems.

They provide habitat and breeding grounds for fish and shellfish, improve water quality and protect coasts from the impact of storms, a report from the United Nations Environment Programme found.

Alarmingly, 29 per cent of the world’s seagrass has already disappeared.

Mr Cowie said:“If seagrass meadows disappear, so do other marine species.”