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Deep-Sea Survey Reveals the Mysteries of the Deep: Trash

Posted On May 9, 2014 by

Photo: Angel Valentin/Aurora Photos

Covering over 70 percent of our planet, the ocean is still largely unexplored. Sailors and explorers have been traversing the seven seas for centuries, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. In fact, more people have been to the moon than have visited the ocean’s abyss, which is why a recent scientific paper from the journal PLOS ONE is so  disconcerting.

In one of the largest scientific seafloor surveys to date, scientists used remotely-operated vehicles and trawl nets to examine 32 deep-sea sites in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. The astonishing part—they found plastic bottles, fishing gear, and other man-made debris in all of them. Some of the debris items found had traveled more than 1,200 miles from the shore—most of it settling in remote, deep-sea caverns.

Most scientists who have worked in the deep-sea environment or on marine debris issues are not surprised by the findings presented in this paper. We have seen evidence of this problem time and time again on shorelines close to urban population centers as well as those located thousands of miles from coastal towns. What we have not seen however, is conclusive evidence of the ubiquity of plastics and debris on our ocean’s seafloor.

In a few weeks, Ocean Conservancy will release its 2013 Trash Free Seas data report. It contains all of the data collected by International Coastal Cleanup Volunteers around the world. For three decades, this information has highlighted the most persistent items of debris littering our beaches, waterways and the ocean. At a time when scientists are just beginning to understand the very real impacts plastic debris has on marine animals and habitats in coastal and shallow water ecosystems, we must now conjecture the potential harm these materials may pose to deep-sea environments. We should not and cannot wait to determine what these impacts may be; the time is now to take aggressive action on halting the flow of trash at its source.

And I am optimistic.

Solutions are at hand. If  we build on the actions of individuals, companies and elected officials, all that remains is simply the will to build a collective movement to make a lasting difference. Doing so will not be easy, but enhanced individual responsibility, new industry leadership, innovative science and smart public policy represent the comprehensive solution to the ongoing challenge of marine debris.