The growing impact of floating plastic in the Atlantic Ocean was realized in harsh terms this month when scientists captured a 7-foot shark that had grown for years with a taut plastic strap around its gills.
Photos posted by Marine scientist James Sulikowski show the female shark’s head was slowly being sliced off by the unyielding strap.
The “piece of circular plastic had become lodged around her neck when she was younger. As she grew, it began to cut through her skin into her muscle,” Sulikowski said in a Facebook post shared hundreds of times. “If we had not removed it, she surely would have died.”
Sulikowski, a professor at the University of New England, told McClatchy newspapers the white plastic strap was likely from a bait box.
The shark, a porbeagle, was caught off the coast of Maine during the first week of July, he said. Porbeagles are a coastal species known to reach more than 11 feet in length, according to Oceana.org. They live to nearly 50 years in the North Atlantic.
The Maine-based Sulikowski Shark and Research Lab has been trapping and tagging porbeagle sharks as part of a larger collaboration with NOAA Fisheries “to update the biology and ecology of the species in U.S. waters,” he told McClatchy.
The team decided to include the injured porbeagle shark in the study.
“We attached a satellite tag to her dorsal fin and released her in hopes of tracking her recovery from this gruesome injury,” Sulikowski said in a post.
“We are happy to report she is alive and well and transmitting locations already. Given the nature of her injury and her fortitude to not give up, we have named her Destiny because she is definitely a survivor!”
Sulikowski’s recent work has included putting trackers — known as Birth-Tags — on migrating sharks to find out where they give birth off the East Coast.
The Shark Trust reports “marine debris is an ever-growing threat to animals in the oceans,” but Sulikowski’s discovery is a rare example of the impact on sharks.
“Little is known about the susceptibility of sharks and rays to this threat,” The Shark Trust says on its website.
“Research has shown that the most common type of debris that is entangling sharks and rays is ghost fishing gear,” the trust says. “This is fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned at sea and drifts around indiscriminately catching marine animals.”