Coronavirus facemasks are becoming a marine wildlife hazard

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Gary Stokes, co-founder of marine conservation group OceansAsia, shown holding up the coronavirus facemasks that he recovered from a Hong Kong beach

NEWS/VIEWS – COMMENT ON THE NEWS: From the shores of England to those of Hong Kong discarded coronavirus facemasks are rapidly developing into a new hazard to marine wildlife and wildlife habitats. It is intriguing that I have picked up news stories on this topic from such diverse places.

Gary Stokes, co-founder of marine conservation group OceansAsia, shown holding up the coronavirus facemasks that he recovered from a Hong Kong beach

Gary Stokes, co-founder of marine conservation group OceansAsia, shown holding up the coronavirus facemasks that he recovered from a Hong Kong beach. The photograph was taken on March 7, 2020 by Yoyo Chow/Reuters.

England

In Chelmsford, England, a seagull has been rescued after it was discovered to have a surgical mask entangled around its legs. The seagull was unable to move and had been paralysed for some hours until RSPCA inspector Adam Jones was called to the scene. Staff at a local car dealership had spotted the bird struggling to walk.

The bird was taken to South Essex Wildlife Hospital where the mask was removed. It is likely that we will see far more discarded masks polluting the environment both on land and in sea as they have now become obligatory inside shops, on trains and buses in the UK.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, it is shocking to see coronavirus facemasks piling up on their beaches. They are washed up threatening a fragile marine ecosystem. On one small stretch Gary Stokes, the founder of the environmental group OceansAsia picked up 60-70 masks.

When he came back a week later there were 30 new masks in the same area. He found it quite alarming. Other beaches have the same problem. It appears that the masks have not been disposed of properly and have ended up being dumped in the countryside or the sea. Marine wildlife can mistake objects such as these is food. There have been some horrendous photographs of the insides of a whale’s stomach full of plastic bags and a seagull feeding her chick with lumps of plastic from the sea.

The facemasks collected from Hong Kong beaches are made of polypropylene, a plastic which degrades slowly. Hong Kong has a problem with single-use plastic waste; little rubbish is recycled and about 70% of it ends up in landfill.

British Columbia

Bird killed by a coronavirus facemask

Bird killed by a coronavirus facemask. Photo: Facebook page of Sandra Denisuk.

On Facebook there are photos posted by Sandra Denisuk who lives in British Columbia, Canada. She found a bird with a blue facemask wraps under its wing and beak. She urges people not to throw away their masks or surgical gloves onto the ground.

She says that the bird was “caught in a tree for two days. The mask’s elastic air material was also wrapped around its neck”. The bird didn’t make it she says. Sandra is right. It’s about carelessness and a throwaway culture.

Quality of the product

There may also be a questionmark over the quality of disposable masks. Two of them that I have bought were defective in that the ear rings broke off. If this problem is replicated in large numbers they may be discarded improperly which means that they might end up in places other than commercial disposal areas.

Ironic

Coronavirus facemasks are designed to protect people. It is ironic that they are now endangering marine wildlife. Arguably, the coronavirus pandemic has been caused by an unhealthy and abusive relationship between people and wild animals. In tackling the pandemic humans have unwittingly created a further abuse of animals. It highlights the general background culture of humankind’s relationship with wildlife.