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Posted on 24/02/2022 by Phillip Island Nature Parks

Face mask litter puts Phillip Island wildlife at risk

An alarming number of discarded face masks is putting Phillip Island’s much-loved little penguins and other wildlife at risk of entanglement or even death.

In January alone, Phillip Island Nature Parks rangers collected a staggering 227 masks from the Nature Parks’ reserves and beaches.

One little penguin was found using a disposable mask in its burrow as nesting material, while a swamp hen had to be intercepted running back to its nest with a cloth mask and a raven was spotted with a mask caught around its foot.

Paula Wasiak, Research Technical Officer at Phillip Island Nature Parks, said rangers have not only been finding masks at the Penguin Parade and other popular visitor attractions, but also washed up along beaches that are inaccessible to the public.

She said this suggests masks are not only being dropped but are also washing ashore.

“It’s pretty upsetting to witness the impact that masks are having on our local environment here on Phillip Island,” Ms Wasiak said.

It’s possible for penguins and other birds to become entangled in the masks’ ear loops – a disturbing image many of us have seen from across the world during the pandemic.

This entanglement can restrict their movement, ability to fish, or cut off circulation, and can ultimately lead to injury or death.

“It’s so easy for a bird to become entangled in a mask but difficult for them to escape. It might be easy for us to stretch and pull the straps off, but penguins don’t have that reach to be able to remove it if they become caught,” Ms Wasiak said.

“Thankfully I haven’t seen any penguins entangled here at the Nature Parks, but we only monitor around five per cent of Phillip Island’s colony of around 40,000 little penguins.

“It was fortunate that the penguin we found with a mask in its burrow was being monitored as part of a study site, so we could remove it, but sadly we won’t always be so lucky.”

Ms Wasiak said face masks were an important public health measure but urged everyone to be mindful when visiting.

“If you accidentally drop your mask, please try to retrieve it, or ask one of our rangers for help – and when it’s time to dispose of your mask, always make sure you pull the loops off or cut them before throwing it in the bin,” she said.

“If you see someone drop their mask, let them know, and remind them to dispose of it properly. Keeping Phillip Island tidy and safe for our wildlife is everyone’s responsibility and we all play an important role.

“These are little things we can all do that will make a big different to our little penguins and other wildlife.”