While the photograph in this post may be disturbing to some readers, it is a stark reminder of the deadly effects our waste can have on wildlife. 

Rescue efforts came too late this week to save a dying grey seal that hauled ashore in England's St. Mary's Island Local Nature Reserve. The ailing animal was found with severe injuries caused by polyester strapping – the kind you find wrapped around a parcel or stack of newspapers. 

The young male was spotted by a local beachgoer, who contacted wildlife officials for help. National response organisation British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) sent a medic to the scene, but the 30-minute commute time proved too long for the seal to hold on. 

"If this loop had been cut before being thrown away, this animal would not have died today, in this way," the team wrote on their Facebook page. "[This] has led us to consider again what happens to our waste, even when disposed of correctly – what happens to it after can have deadly consequences."

Judging by the seal's gaping wound, the loop had likely been wrapped around the animal for some time. Image: British Divers Marine Life Rescue/Facebook

It's likely that the seal swam into the strapping as a smaller juvenile. Unable to wriggle free, it would have continued growing with the object wrapped around its body, cutting deeper into the skin over time. 

St. Mary's supports a grey seal haul-out site, and provides important roosting and foraging habitat for a variety of birds. This makes the incident particularly troubling to local conservationists. 

The image has been shared thousands of times on social media this week, and several commenters have reported similar sightings. 

"[The straps] are truly lethal things," wrote Scotland resident Sandy MacDonald. "I've seen two cases of minkes getting the larger ones trapped in their baleen plates. If you ever use these things, bin them safely. And if you ever see them washed ashore or even just lying around, pick them up and bin them."

According to the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSG), marine litter is becoming one of the biggest threats to grey seal pups in the UK. The curious youngsters tend to swim head-first into plastic bags, and discarded debris can also knock them around during high tide. 

For larger individuals, like the St Mary's male, mealtime poses the biggest risk.

"Older seals have been seen eating floating plastic bags, rubber gloves and crisp packets," reports CSG. "Please dispose of all litter carefully."

You can find a beach cleanup near you and help scientists track marine trash by clicking here. For a great guide on plastic pollution, go here.


Top header image: Chris Jones/Flickr