The following is a guest blog from Dr. Chelsea Rochman, who is currently serving as a Smith Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Biology.
For decades, we have heard concerns regarding the entanglement of marine mammals and sea turtles in marine debris. We see images of seabirds, turtles and whales washing up with bellies full of trash. And more recently, we see constant media attention on microplastics—small pieces of plastic debris less than five millimeters in size. Marine debris is everywhere. It is reported from the poles to the equator and from the surface to the seafloor. It has been recorded in tens of thousands of individual animals encompassing nearly 600 species.
With such vast and abundant contamination, comes a perception that marine debris is a large threat to the ecology of our ocean. As part of a working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) facilitated by Ocean Conservancy and focused on marine debris, I worked with a group of scientists to ask if the weight of evidence demonstrating impacts matched the weight of this concern? The findings of our analysis have just been published.
During a single day of coastal and waterway cleanups, volunteers around the world collected nearly 990,000 plastic beverage bottles and 975,000 plastic bags. These efforts are truly amazing but the amount of debris in the environment, especially our ocean, is still daunting. Along with cleaning up what’s out there, we need to be proactive in stopping these common consumer items from reaching the environment in the first place.
Thankfully, there is a stellar group of sixth grade students who are showing us the way. The Kittredge Magnet School’s “Recycling Cougars” of DeKalb, GA have been working to turn plastic water bottle and plastic bag recycling into a reality in their school and community.
I looked up just as the water above me darkened. Within an arm’s length, a massive whale shark passed over my head, its tail methodically propelling it forward. I caught its improbably small eye looking intently at me as it glided past. Directly behind came a second whale shark and then another.
But I wasn’t swimming in the ocean – I was 30 feet below the surface, at the bottom of the 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium. As a marine scientist, I’ve logged a lot of dives in places from tropical reefs to temperate kelp forests. But I’d never been this up close and personal with the world’s biggest fish. In the wild, whale sharks can grow to 40 feet and nearly 50,000 pounds; those at the Georgia Aquarium are a relatively “small” 25 feet in length.
Ocean Conservancy strives for a clean, healthy ocean for all. But the ocean trash problem is vast, which means we all need to do our part. We are advocates for reducing unnecessary waste, reusing items as often as possible and recycling as much as we can.
In honor of America Recycles Day, Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas team is diving into recycling—with an ocean spin. We reached out to experts at the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) to better understand recycling and to learn why some plastics collected at beach and waterway cleanups can be tricky to make anew.
It’s getting really bad. Practically every kind of animal, from plankton to whales, is now contaminated by plastic. It’s in the birds, in the turtles, in the fish. At the current rate, we could have 1 ton of plastics for every 3 tons of fish by 2025.
This is nobody’s plan. It’s not the plan of the plastics industry, it’s not the plan of the consumer goods industry and it’s certainly not the plan for those of us who love and need the ocean. Nobody wants this.
Photo: Susan White / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
If you have been reading my recent posts, you have noticed that I have been discussing the emerging science on plastic pollution in the ocean and exploring what we need to do to stem the tide. It started in February, when a groundbreaking study showed that 8 million tons (nearly 17 billion pounds) of plastic flows into the ocean each year, mostly from a small number of Asian nations where local waste management can’t keep up with rapidly growing plastic use. Then scientists estimated that nearly all the worlds’ seabirds will be contaminated by plastics by 2050 unless conditions don’t change. And a study published only days later showed that half the globe’s sea turtles are likely to suffer the same fate. Today, we need to think carefully about the latest study, showing that plastics can be found in many of the fish that we eat. We don’t yet know if eating plastic-laden fish negatively impacts our health, but today’s study is another brick in the growing wall of scientific evidence that demonstrates that plastics are a major threat to the global ocean and ultimately, ourselves.