An endangered whale shark washed up dead on the Pamban beach in Tamil Nadu, India. Upon examination, a plastic spoon was found stuck inside its digestive system.

The cause of death was internal injury, likely due to the animal hitting a rock or large vessel. The plastic is a portentous reminder of the harm pollution and human beings inflict on marine life.

The beloved whale shark is not only the largest shark, but also the largest fish in the world. They are distinguished by the size of their mouth, which can span up to five feet. The sharks swim mouths agape as they ingest and filter tons of plankton and small fish through their gills. This is how a plastic spoon made its way into the shark’s digestive tract. Unharmed, they can live long lives of up to 70 years and grow to be 40 feet long. Because they are such gentle and harmless creatures,  human beings love to swim with them. But unfortunately for them, humans are their biggest predator.

Although the whale shark is listed threatened by extinction by the United Nations Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) and as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), both evidenced by its steadily declining population, they are still illegally hunted for their fins and meat and subjected to fishing nets as bycatch. Another largely unpublicized factor contributing to their decline is the risk of a ship or vessel striking them. As a huge tourist attraction, their swimming and feeding patterns are often harmed by boats, motors, and people disrupting their survival.

An estimated seventy-five percent of the whale shark population is in the Indo-Pacific which has seen a decline of 63 percent over the last 75 years. With losses this high, illegal hunting, a shrinking habitat, pollution and plastic are imminent threats. We can make a daily effort to reduce and reuse plastic. Using less and obviously recycling when we do can mean the difference between life and death for innocent marine life.

A plastic spoon stuck inside a dead whale shark is just one more bit of evidence pointing to how imperative ending our use and excess of plastic truly is.