Nearly every week, the media reports on another whale becoming entangled in fishing gear. Many of those animals drag the ropes and buoys and other equipment for months or years before they die from exhaustion or starvation or from the resulting injuries. Entanglement is the leading cause of death for one of the rarest whales on earth, the North Atlantic right whale, which travels from Florida and Georgia to New England to feed every winter and spring.
But whales aren’t the only animals that become entangled and suffer and die. It happens many times every day to birds, mammals, turtles and other creatures as well. And most of these entanglements are entirely unnecessary.
A birdwatching friend posted a picture on Facebook last month of a gull-like bird called a common tern she saw at a beach in Charlestown that had the string from a balloon wrapped
No one who releases helium balloons – whether in celebration or by mistake – intends to harm wildlife, but that is often the result. Every one of those balloons is going to come down somewhere and, at best, become entangled in trees or land somewhere to eventually be collected and thrown out with the garbage. More likely, balloons released from Rhode Island will fall into the ocean where they will be mistaken for jellyfish and eaten by sea turtles or other marine life. Or their strings will entangle any number of other creatures, as happened to a young owl last spring in Narragansett.
But balloons are only one entanglement hazard that wildlife face. There are plenty more. The Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island in North Kingstown, which treats injured animals, cares for numerous entangled creatures every year, most caused by monofilament fishing line disposed of improperly.
Clinic volunteers, for instance, rescued a crow in Portsmouth that was tethered to a tree by a snarl of fishing line and an eider duck they described as so completely entangled that the animal was “essentially a big ball of fishing line.” They also recently cared for three painted turtles, an osprey, three ducks – including one hanging from a tree – and several gulls and cormorants, all ensnared in monofilament line. Last year, a Canada goose had fishing line wrapped around its legs so tightly that it required weeks of care and treatment before it recovered enough to be released back into the wild.
“The sheer number of animals that are killed or injured as a result of human garbage is astronomical,” said Arianna Mouradjian, director of the clinic. “It’s a problem that, while quite large, is absolutely fixable.”
Discarded fishing line is doubly dangerous to animals because of the hooks that are often still attached. Most of the wildlife the clinic disentangles from fishing line must also have fish hooks removed from their flesh.
So the next time you want to celebrate an occasion by releasing balloons into the air – or you carelessly discard fishing line – remember that your seemingly innocuous act is likely to cause unnecessary suffering to wildlife near and far. They are behaviors worth reconsidering.This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on August 19, 2017.