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Svalbard polar bears

During our expeditions on Svalbard we have seen Svalbard Polar Bears eating plastic, playing with plastic and being affected by garbage several times. Even on Svalbard, which is an outpost in the High Arctic, Polar Bears can not escape human stupidity.

svalbard polar bears
Polar bears chewing on black plastic on Svalbard in 2018 during one of our wildlife photo expeditions there.

Polar bears and garbage

Many think it is global warming that is the major threat to polar bears, but that’s not the only danger to them. Recent reports and sightings from other places in the High Arctic like Alaska and Russia, show that Polar Bears chew on and eat plastic if they find it. ​In an analysis of the stomach contents of 51 polar bears that had been killed by subsistence hunters in the southern Beaufort Sea between 1996 and 2018, researchers led by Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a wildlife veterinarian with Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, found that 25 percent of the bears had plastic in their stomachs.

svalbard polar bears
Polar bear checking out a plastic box on one of many beaches on the Svalbard archipelagoes.

Curious behavior

In the Arctic, dumps and nearby settlements are chock-full of plastic and a new survey from Alaska shows that polar bears are ingesting a lot of it. Our sightings in Svalbard, particularly on one occasion, we clearly saw that polar bear cubs eat plastic because it is something interesting to them. What would be better to do than examine a piece of black plastic when you are relaxing together with your mom far north in the high Arctic where nothing else interesting happens? In our opinion polar bears, especially cubs and young inexperienced bears, eat plastic because they are curious. It's not by accident.

Ingesting plastic can cause serious problems for polar bears because of their physiology. Polar bears have a very narrow outlet from the stomach to the small intestine and large items can cause painful blockages. Two of the bears whose stomachs were stuffed with more plastics than the other bears had behaved differently and more irritable and aggressive. These two bears did not respond to deterrents meant to chase them away.

svalbard polar bears
Polar bear caught in fishing net.

Svalbard polar bears and their future

On Svalbard plastic garbage, fishing nets, fishing equipment, ropes and different plastic items is common to see. On every beach or island, we find especially small plastic pieces and other garbage items. Too often we also find bigger items. We always try to collect the plastic we find and pick it up. For bigger items, like fishing nets which are too heavy to remove by hand, we report it to the local authorities, and they will remove it.

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