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Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-Semitism crisis tearing the UK Labour Party apart, explained



LONDON — The UK’s Labour Party is in the midst of a full-blown anti-Semitism crisis.

Recently, nine members of Parliament (MPs) quit the center-left party in protest of the current leadership, citing their handling of allegations of anti-Semitism as well as dissatisfaction over the party’s stance on Brexit.

“I cannot remain in a party that I have today come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally anti-Semitic,” Labour MP Luciana Berger said at a February 18 press conference explaining her decision to leave. Berger, who is Jewish, has received a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse online over the past few years.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in London on February 20, 2019.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in London on February 20, 2019.
Tolga Akemn/AFP/Getty Images

While rumors have circulated for months about a possible Labour split due to the UK’s upcoming, chaotic divorce from the European Union, the resignations — particularly Berger’s — sent shock waves through the party, and many felt that the party leadership should have done more to protect Berger from the abuse she’d been receiving.

If you’re wondering how the situation has escalated to this point, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

The anti-Semitism controversy in the Labour Party is fairly recent

The UK Labour Party, which dates back to 1900, was long seen as the party of the working classes. Throughout most of its history, Labour has stood for social justice, equality, and anti-racism.

Onlookers view a political poster issued by the British Labour Party that reads “Let’s have a better Britain. Vote Labour!” on September 24, 1959.

Onlookers view a political poster issued by the British Labour Party on September 24, 1959.
Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images

Labour’s controversy over anti-Semitism is fairly recent. It’s often traced back to 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn became the party leader. Corbyn, seen as on Labour’s left wing, has long defended the rights of Palestinians and often been more critical than the party mainstream of Israel’s government.

But during the Labour leadership contest in 2015, a then-senior Jewish Labour MP said that Corbyn had in the past showed “poor judgment” on the issue of anti-Semitism — after Corbyn unexpectedly became the frontrunner in the contest, a Jewish newspaper reported on his past meetings with individuals and organizations who had expressed anti-Semitic views.

Concerns over anti-Semitism only really began to turn into a crisis, however, the year after Corbyn became leader. In April 2016, a well-known right-wing blog revealed that Labour MP Naz Shah had posted anti-Semitic messages to Facebook a couple of years before being elected.

One post showed a photo of Israel superimposed onto a map of the US, suggesting the country’s relocation would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Above the photo, Shah wrote, “Problem solved.”

Shah apologized, but former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, a long-time Labour member who was close to party leader Jeremy Corbyn, made things worse by rushing to Shah’s defense — and added an inflammatory claim that Hitler initially supported Zionism, before “he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”

The party suspended Shah and Livingstone and launched an inquiry into anti-Semitism. But Corbyn was criticized for not acting quickly or decisively enough to deal with the problem. Afterward, claims of anti-Semitism kept resurfacing as individual examples were dug up across Labour’s wide membership.

By now a narrative was building that anti-Semitism was rife within the party — and that the election of Corbyn as leader was the cause.

The unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn became Labour’s leader in 2015, to pretty much everyone’s surprise.

The 69-year-old became politically active in his 20s and had been a so-called “backbencher” — an MP without an official position in the government or the opposition parties — since 1983.

Throughout his political career, Corbyn has protested against racism and backed left-wing campaigns such as nuclear disarmament, and was considered the long shot in the party’s leadership contest — bookmakers initially put the chance of him winning at 200 to 1.

Organizers of the “British Out of Ireland” march in London, England, including future Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn (second from left), on August 18, 1984.

Organizers of the “British Out of Ireland” march in London, including future Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (second from left), on August 18, 1984.
Michael Daines/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The three other candidates were considered centrist or center-left. Two had served in government during the New Labour era, when Tony Blair swung the party to the center ground. Corbyn’s victory confirmed that the New Labour project was dead.

Some MPs later admitted they only backed him as one of the leadership candidates so that a representative of the party’s left-wing would be on the ballot; they never thought he would win.

Corbyn’s campaign drummed up a big grassroots following as his anti-austerity, socialist message gained traction, in a way that would later be echoed by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign in the US.

Shocking the establishment and against all odds, Corbyn went on to decisively win the leadership contest. When, the following year, MPs on the right of the party revolted and forced a leadership contest, Corbyn yet again won convincingly.

Ever since Tony Blair helmed the party from 1994 to 2007, Labour had been dominated by more centrist than left-leaning MPs. Under Blair, Labour embraced neoliberal economics alongside more traditionally liberal social policies, such as a minimum wage.

After being named the new leader of the Labour Party on September 12, 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, addressed a demonstration in London, England, calling to accept more refugees.

After being named the new leader of the Labour Party on September 12, 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, addressed a demonstration in London, calling to accept more refugees.
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

But after Corbyn’s unexpected win, everything changed. Corbyn steered the party to the left on many issues, including proposals to nationalize the railways and possibly the energy companies, end the era of slashing state spending, and tax the rich.

He also moved the party leftward on Israel and Palestine.

Labour’s previously moribund membership boomed to half a million, making it one of the biggest political parties in Europe. The many newcomers were attracted by the chance to support a truly left-wing Labour Party.

Claims of anti-Semitism also increased: Labour’s general secretary revealed that between April 2018 and January 2019, the party received 673 accusations of anti-Semitism among members, which had led to 96 members being suspended and 12 expelled.

Part of the reason anti-Semitism claims have grown under Corbyn is that his wing of the party — the socialist left — tends to be passionately pro-Palestine. There is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about defending Palestinians, but such a position can lead to tensions between left-wing anti-Zionists and mainstream Jewish communities.

This tension has at times led to a tendency on the left to indulge in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes — like blaming a Jewish conspiracy for Western governments’ support of Israel or equating Jews who support Israel with Nazi collaborators.

Corbyn’s defenders point out that the media has inordinately focused on Labour while giving less attention to cases of racism and Islamophobia among the Conservatives and other parties. But if it wasn’t clear already, recent events have confirmed that anti-Semitism is a crisis for Labour.

Labour MP Luciana Berger arrives at a press conference in which she and six other MPs announced their resignation from the Labour Party, on February 18, 2019, in London, England.

Labour MP Luciana Berger arrives at a press conference in which she and six other MPs announced their resignation from the Labour Party on February 18, 2019, in London.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

Many of the MPs who resigned from Labour two weeks ago had long been threatening to go, and have deeply held political differences with Labour’s more radically progressive leadership. But Luciana Berger resigned because of anti-Semitism, and Labour’s failure to prevent her from leaving on this count is impossible to ignore.

Is Corbyn to blame for Labour’s current crisis?

At first glance, Corbyn hardly seems like someone who would be an enabler of anti-Semitism.

He has a long history of campaigning against racism — for instance, in the 1980s, he participated in anti-apartheid protests against South Africa, at the same time that former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was calling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress opposition movement a “typical terrorist organization.”

And he has long campaigned for Palestinian rights, while being critical of the government of Israel — including comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.

But Corbyn’s anti-imperialist, anti-racist stance over the years has also led some to label him a terrorist sympathizer. Corbyn in the past advocated for negotiations with militant Irish republicans. As he did with Irish republicans, Corbyn encouraged talks with the Islamist militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

He has also been heavily criticized for having previously referred to these groups as “friends,” which caused outrage when publicized during 2015’s Labour leadership contest. Corbyn explained that he had only used “friends” in the context of trying to promote peace talks, but later said he regretted using the word.

Last March, Corbyn was also criticized for a 2012 comment on Facebook, in which he had expressed solidarity with an artist who had used anti-Semitic tropes in a London mural that was going to be torn down.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech at a rally in Hastings, England, on January 17, 2019.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech at a rally in Hastings, England, on January 17, 2019.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

After Luciana Berger tweeted about the post and demanded an explanation from the Labour Party leadership, Corbyn said that he “sincerely regretted” having not looked at the “deeply disturbing” image more closely, and condemned anti-Semitism.

A few days later, Jewish groups gathered outside the UK Parliament to demonstrate against anti-Semitism. The Jewish Leadership Council, an umbrella organization for several Jewish groups and institutions in the UK, said that there was “no safe space” in the Labour Party for Jewish people.

“Rightly or wrong, Jeremy Corbyn is now the figurehead for an anti-Semitic political culture, based upon an obsessive hatred of Israel, conspiracy theories and fake news,” the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jonathan Goldstein, said at the time.

The crisis didn’t end there. In August 2018, the right-wing British newspaper the Daily Mail accused Corbyn of having laid a wreath at the graves of the Palestinian terrorists while in Tunisia in 2014.

Corbyn acknowledges that he participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at a Tunisian cemetery in 2014, but says he was commemorating the victims of a 1985 Israeli airstrike on the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who were living in exile in Tunis at the time. The airstrike killed almost 50 people, including civilians, and wounded dozens more.

However, the Daily Mail published photos showing Corbyn holding a wreath not far from the graves of four Palestinians believed to be involved with the 1972 Munich massacre, in which members of the Black September terrorist organization killed 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer at the Munich Olympics.

Corbyn denies he was commemorating the latter individuals, but his muddled explanations in the wake of the controversy left some unsatisfied with his response.

Campaign Against Antisemitism, along with Jewish community groups and their supporters, staged a protest in Parliament Square, London, England, on July 19, 2018, following the Labour Party’s announcement that it would take action against MP Dame Margaret

Campaign Against Antisemitism, along with Jewish community groups and their supporters, staged a protest in Parliament Square, London, on July 19, 2018, following the Labour Party’s announcement that it would take action against MP Dame Margaret Hodge for calling Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite.
Vickie Flores/In Pictures via Getty Images

Today, on social media, it is common to see Corbyn denounced for enabling anti-Semitism — author J.K. Rowling has even criticized him for it — while some brand him outright as an anti-Semite. When US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recently tweeted that she’d had “a lovely and wide-reaching conversation” with Corbyn by phone, hundreds of commenters criticized her for speaking to Labour’s “anti-Semitic” leader.

Corbyn’s defenders argue that there is no clear evidence that he — a lifelong campaigner against racism — is anti-Semitic.

“My mother was a refugee on the Kindertransport, and a massive friend of Corbyn — they worked terribly closely together, doing all sorts of political things to support communities in North London,” Annabelle Sreberny, emeritus professor at SOAS University of London and member of Jewish Voice for Labour — a small organization that tends to deny Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism — told me. “So the idea that he himself is an anti-Semite is just a pathetic smear.”

Sreberny told me she largely sees the portrayal of Corbyn’s Labour Party as “institutionally anti-Semitic” — which is how Berger put it when she resigned — as part of a calculated political campaign against Corbyn and his left-wing agenda.

And indeed, this perception may have actually contributed to the current crisis.

Michael Segalov, a journalist who has written and spoken extensively on this issue, told me he thinks that part of the reason Corbyn and the Labour leadership were initially slow to react to anti-Semitism was that the claims were wrongly interpreted as part of a sustained, wider campaign of personal and political attacks against Corbyn.

But like Segalov, there are many in the Labour Party who strongly disagree with the idea that the accusations of anti-Semitism are merely a political smear campaign. A poll carried out by the Jewish Chronicle newspaper in the summer of 2018 found more than 85 percent of British Jews believe Corbyn himself is anti-Semitic, and a similar number believe the level of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is “high” or “very high.”

Jon Lansman, founder of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum and now a member of Labour’s national executive committee, recently told the BBC’s Radio 4 that there were many more Labour members who held “hardcore, anti-Semitic opinions” than previously thought. Lansman, who is Jewish, also said that he felt “regret, sadness and some shame” about Berger’s resignation from the party.

Where does Labour go from here?

There seems to have been a major shift in the perspectives of party leaders since the resignation of the nine Labour MPs.

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who is seen as a centrist, recently told the BBC that he thought if Corbyn took “a personal lead” in examining accusations of anti-Semitism, it could make a big difference. Watson said that just last week, he had received a dossier from parliamentary colleagues of 50 complaints on anti-Semitism that he felt had not been dealt with adequately, and had passed them on to Corbyn.

Corbyn, perhaps heeding Watson’s advice, is in talks to appoint former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer to be an independent reviewer tasked with ensuring that anti-Semitism claims within the party are handled more effectively. Falconer held high office from 2003 to 2007 under Blair’s government and is respected across the party.

British Lord Chancellor Lord Charles Falconer in Sydney, Australia on September 13, 2006.

British Lord Chancellor Lord Charles Falconer in Sydney, Australia, on September 13, 2006.
Andrew Quilty/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The recent split could prove a turning point for Labour in terms of addressing anti-Semitism as well as wider divisions within the party. “I think [Corbyn] understands now that if he is ever to be prime minister, he needs to rebuild that trust [with the British Jewish community],” said Watson, who urged the quick expulsion of members who’d made anti-Semitic comments. But as Watson added: “Time is against us.”

Indeed, urgency is needed for Labour’s leadership to effectually tackle the party’s anti-Semitism crisis and convince other MPs not to quit. The nine MPs who’ve left have formed the Independent Group, an informal assemblage that plans to launch as an official political party before the end of the year. Several other Labour MPs are rumored to be thinking of joining them.

Unless Labour moves fast, the emerging centrist party could prove an existential threat.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally in Broxtowe, central England, where former Conservative member of parliament, Anna Soubry, has recently resigned to join an Independent Group of MPs, on February 23, 2019.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally in Broxtowe, central England, where former Conservative member of Parliament Anna Soubry has recently resigned to join an independent group of MPs, on February 23, 2019.
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Darren Loucaides is a British writer who covers politics, populism, and identity. Find him on Twitter @DarrenLoucaides.

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What happens when a gothic lit expert moves into a haunted house




Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of May 19, 2019.

Another thing about that first workshop was that I heard something about myself that I had never heard before: that my story was protective and civilized and carefully managed. These to me seemed the primary virtues of fiction that I loved and that I wanted to write. There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be. I left the workshop that night feeling like I had been struck by lightning. I was angry and ashamed.

Become a literary citizen of the world. Spend time in a foreign literary community by hatching an insane plot to launch a new Holy War against the infidels of Egypt, a plot so deeply deranged that when you finally manage to present your plan to Louis XIV, a king who enthusiastically led France into four major wars, he’s so appalled by the idea of a new crusade that he literally responds, “I have nothing to say.” Do all of this just to live in Paris for a bit.

“I don’t think the Times has ever seen this number of requests,” a veteran editor concurred, adding, “For department heads, it’s become almost impossible to manage.” The glut of big newsy projects that require essential beat reporters to take book leave is especially tricky. For one thing, there’s always concern among editors about balancing reporting that’s exclusive to books with reporting that can be published in the Times. More practically, as another Times journalist put it, “It’s kind of made the editors stand up and realize, holy shit, we have all these people writing books, and that’s an awful lot of man- and woman-power off the daily report in a pretty significant way.”

Books can be aesthetic signifiers, colorful set pieces of sorts, their spines telegraphing a certain gravitas — or a certain playfulness, depending on how they’re arranged. “I like to compare physical books to candles,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Light bulbs do the job, but there’s a strong aesthetic of a candle that puts soul into a room. Books do that, too. They create theater and drama.”

It is lined with red, marbled paper. On the inside cover, two skeletons hold a banner reading: “Statutum est hominibus semel mori,” or “All people are destined to die once.” It’s Hebrews 9:27, and it wouldn’t be nearly as ominous if it wasn’t next to 10 little drawers labeled with names of poisonous plants, and a mirrored shelf holding several little glass bottles.

The compartments bear the German names for hemlock, wolfsbane, foxglove, and more—all lethal, properly administered—and the suggestion seems to be that the little vials are there for a would-be poisoner to mix up their own deadly cocktails.

Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.

Of course, bookstores sell books, but these shops often serve other purposes as well. Leftist bookstores in particular commonly act as multipurpose spaces for local activists as well as stops for progressive and leftist authors’ book tours. In some smaller towns, these bookshops can be neighborhood or even city strongholds for locals who may not have many other places to safely and comfortably organize, or even just hang out. Bookshops that are not expressly political in their mission still frequently host authors whose work is political, and thus when these authors are targeted, often bookshops are as well.

This is the problem with white people, as Eddie Murphy assesses it in his 1983 standup comedy special Delirious: we stay in haunted houses, like idiots. We don’t heed the warnings; we don’t read the signs. In pursuit of the American dream of homeownership—the middle-class domestic ideal, the manicured lawn, the 30-year mortgage and its promise of equity and upward mobility—we colonize spaces, nominally vacant and hauntingly occupied, as if we belong there. As if it is our right.

Here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting Happy reading!

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Introducing the Exclusive ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar




Meet the brand new ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar. Wrapped up in an exclusive print from designer of the moment and ELLE friend Richard Quinn, and housing no less than 24 luxury beauty products worth £340, the ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar is the only Christmas present you need this year. Buy yours now:

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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained




Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.

This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.

In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.

“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”

In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.

As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.

But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.

To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.

There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean

The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.

Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales stands beside a huge Whale made from plastic bottles as part of the Sky Ocean rescue Campaign, outside the Queen Elizabeth II building at Westminster on April 17, 2018 in London, England.

Charles, Prince of Wales, stands beside a huge whale made from plastic bottles as part of the Sky Ocean rescue campaign, outside the Queen Elizabeth II building at Westminster on April 17, 2018, in London.
John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”

And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.

Different whales face different risks from plastic

Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?

Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.

Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.

Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.

“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”

Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.

Rescuers found a baby dolphin in distress in Fort Myers, Florida. After the animal was euthanized, officials found two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon in its stomach.

Rescuers found a baby dolphin in distress in Fort Myers, Florida, last month. After the animal was euthanized, officials found two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon in its stomach.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.

A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.

Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.

“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.

Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.

We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic

Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.

Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.

“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”

Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.

And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”

But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.

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