Ocean Currents » NCEAS http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 25 Apr 2017 13:47:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 What Do We Actually Know About the Ecological Impacts of Marine Debris? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/03/31/what-do-we-actually-know-about-the-ecological-impacts-of-marine-debris/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/03/31/what-do-we-actually-know-about-the-ecological-impacts-of-marine-debris/#comments Thu, 31 Mar 2016 13:00:26 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11795

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.

The Weight of Evidence


“What do we actually know about the ecological impacts of marine debris?

To answer this question, we dove into the growing scientific literature and quantified perceptions regarding impact and evaluated whether individual studies had rigorously tested and demonstrated an effect.

Overall, we found hundreds of perceived impacts and substantial evidence of demonstrated impacts caused by marine debris. We showed that in almost every case where a perceived impact was properly tested, an impact was demonstrated. While we found most evidence at suborganismal levels, it is not a foregone conclusion that sublethal effects due to debris will result in an ecological impact. To be sure that such an ecological response exists, requires a heavier weight of evidence; i.e. more science!

Show Me the Data!

The majority of all impacts were caused by plastic items. For example, my own studies have demonstrated changes in gene expression related to endocrine disruption and stress in the livers of fish exposed to microplastic (Rochman et al., 2013 Sci Reports; Rochman et al., 2014 STOTEN). Still, evidence of demonstrated impacts above suborganismal levels remains extremely sparse, mainly demonstrating death to individual organisms. Causes of impact were mostly due to ingestion, followed by entanglement and smothering. The most common items reported to cause effects at the organism or assemblage levels were lost fishing gear and other items of plastic debris such as rope, bags, straws and degraded fragments. Interestingly, a recent study led by Ocean Conservancy and CSIRO determined that these same marine debris items are perceived to be among the most hazardous by experts in the field.

Perceived, tested and demonstrated impacts of debris. Rows in each matrix represent different levels of biological organization. Columns represent order-of-magnitude sizes of debris from smallest (left) to largest (right). Shading in the individual cells of the matrix represent the magnitude of a) perceived b) tested and c) demonstrated impacts of debris. White represents 0, light grey 1 – 5, grey 6 – 10, dark grey 11 – 20 and black > 21 impacts. Diamonds in matrix 2c correspond to cells where at least one impact has been demonstrated by correlative evidence. 

Although we conclude that the quantity and quality of research evaluating ecological impacts requires improvement for risk to ocean health to be determined with precision, scientists have generated a lot of evidence over the last several decades regarding widespread contamination and suborganismal impacts of marine debris. Thus, there is enough information for policy makers, non-governmental organizations and industry to work together, such as through the Trash Free Seas Alliance® to strategize ways to invoke positive change now while scientists continue to rigorously increase our understanding of the ecological consequences of debris on ocean health.

For more information, the entire article can be found here.

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Saving the Oceans from Plastic: A Field Report from Belize http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/20/saving-the-oceans-from-plastic-a-field-report-from-belize/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/20/saving-the-oceans-from-plastic-a-field-report-from-belize/#comments Wed, 20 May 2015 12:30:52 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10224

Some people would call Belize paradise.  Having recently returned, I can’t say I disagree, but I also saw threats to the beauty on the surface. I spent a week in Belize researching the connection between waste management, plastic pollution and ocean health in this Central American country. As Chief Scientist, I’m working closely with our Trash Free Seas® team to build on our 30-year history of protecting our ocean from the growing threat of ocean trash.

I toured much of the country with independent consultant Ted Siegler from DSM Environmental Services, gaining a firsthand perspective on how recent investments in waste management systems in Belize are improving ocean health but learning how much farther the country needs to go. A former British colony, Belize is frequented by tourists for its beautiful beaches and tropical breezes. But Ted and I visited many sights never seen by these outsiders. The upshot? Trash is a major problem in Belize, as it is in many developing countries.  And it is increasingly clear that this has big consequences for the health of the ocean.

My trip came at a key time. Just recently, a groundbreaking study was published in the prestigious journal Science which, for the first time, quantified the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean. A staggering 8 million metric tons of plastic (~ 17 billion lbs) enter the ocean each year, mostly from rapidly industrializing countries where plastic production and consumption is outpacing the ability of local entities to handle the waste. This problem is predicted to double in the next decade unless something is done to stem the tide. These research findings are the result of a working group initiated 3 years ago by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The findings of the Science paper were brought into sharp focus in Belize.  We learned that the country’s waste management system is similar to that of the United States back in the 1950’s.  Across the country we find open pit, burning dumps. Some are associated with towns like Belize City, Belmopan, Placencia, and Hopkins but smaller, informal dumps also mar the landscape, each a smoldering mass of burning plastics and other materials. Many of these dumps are in low-lying coastal mangroves which are flooded during the rainy season, from king tides, or from storm surge. The most striking example we saw was on the outskirts of Placencia where a vast array of plastics was literally spilling into the coastal lagoon.

The good news is change is coming.  After a massive fire at the Belize City dump in 2009, the government took notice. The fire burned out of control for months, covering the city in dense, acrid smoke and forcing a partial evacuation of the city because of severe air pollution. In response, the International Development Bank (IDB), in collaboration with the central government, co-funded a $14 million US dollar project to develop a formal collection and disposal system throughout the central corridor of the country, where some 50% of the population lives.

Our research expedition to Belize yielded a number of important insights.  It is clear that international collaboration can drive needed infrastructure improvements in developing countries, especially with a strong commitment by the host government and sufficient international financial aid. However, instituting a long-term economic model that makes the system financially self-sufficient is a major challenge. Governments have very limited resources to bring to the table and are buffeted by competing public service demands. Most plastics have limited economic value at present, further complicating the economic calculus. In Belize, as in many developing countries, an informal waste collection community (sometimes called ‘waste pickers’) has formed at the dump sites. Plastic containers for which there is a deposit fee (e.g. some plastic beverage bottles) have the most inherent value and thus are often efficiently recaptured and reused. But large volumes of other plastics, including massive amounts of film plastic (bags, sheeting, wrappers, etc) with little to no value at present is largely ignored by the waste pickers and thus lost to the landfill or disposed in the ocean.

At Ocean Conservancy, we believe we must implement a mechanism to put a larger value on plastics so these materials are recovered and not lost to the ocean. We conclude that the private sector – those that produce and profit from plastics – has a responsibility to help solve the end-of-life problems that we witnessed in Belize. A collection and recycling system that captures all the plastic and is economically sustainable in the long run needs the plastic industry’s ideas, know-how and financial resources.

Government can’t do this on its own. But it is clear that the health of the ocean depends on it.

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Trashing the Ocean: New Study Provides First Estimate of How Much Plastic Flows into the Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/02/13/trashing-the-ocean-new-study-provides-first-estimate-of-how-much-plastic-flows-into-the-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/02/13/trashing-the-ocean-new-study-provides-first-estimate-of-how-much-plastic-flows-into-the-ocean/#comments Fri, 13 Feb 2015 13:00:27 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9855

8 million metric tons. That’s 17 billion pounds. That’s a big number. It’s also the amount of plastics that scientists have now estimated flow into the ocean every year from 192 countries with coastal access.

A groundbreaking study was published yesterday in the international journal Science and released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement for Science in San Jose, California. This work is part of an ongoing international collaboration among scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara to determine the scale, scope and impacts of marine debris – including plastics – on the health of the global ocean. Spearheaded by Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer from the University of Georgia, and other experts in oceanography, waste management and materials science, this is the first study to rigorously estimate the flow of plastic materials into the global ocean.

For the last decade, scientific evidence has been mounting that once plastic enters the ocean it can threaten a wide diversity of marine life (from the smallest of plankton to the largest of whales) through entanglement, ingestion or contamination. The images of how plastics kill wildlife aren’t pretty. But if we are going to stop this onslaught we must know how much material is entering and from where.

The numbers published yesterday are daunting: the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land each year exceeds 4.8 million tons (Mt), and may be as high as 12.7 Mt. This is one to three orders of magnitude (10 – 1000 fold) greater than the amount recently reported in the high-concentration garbage patches. The amount entering the ocean is growing rapidly with the global increase in population and plastics use, with the potential for cumulative inputs of plastic waste in the ocean as high as 250 Mt within 10 years—that’s more than 550 billion pounds. Discharges of plastic come from around the globe but the largest quantities are estimated to be coming from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, Dr. Jambeck’s study determined that the top 20 countries account for 83% of the mismanaged plastic waste available to enter the ocean.

This last point is important.  It indicates that the global ocean plastic problem is actually solvable if we target our efforts at the regions where the flow is greatest. And the greatest opportunity to stem the flow exists in a small number of countries in Asia. Jambeck and her colleagues calculated that improving waste management by 50% in the top 20 countries would result in a nearly 40% decline in inputs of plastic to the ocean.  While this certainly won’t be easy, this would make a big dent in the problem.  To do so, we must move from a mindset of solely trying to clean up the ocean to one where we work together to prevent plastics from entering the ocean in the first place.  At Ocean Conservancy, we should know.  For 30 years, we have coordinated the International Coastal Cleanup and our data have shown this problem isn’t getting any better. Now, Dr. Jambeck’s findings confirm it is actually getting worse.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are committed to science-based solutions to the oceans greatest challenges like food security, climate change and ocean pollution. Yesterday’s study should be a call to arms to improve waste collection systems and practices in those parts of the world where the contribution to plastic pollution in the ocean is greatest. The clock is ticking; we must confront this challenge before plastics overwhelm the ocean.

As ocean advocates, our mission is to protect the long-term health of our ocean. Yesterday’s study shows that to do so we must look toward the land for solutions.

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Trash Lab: Because Rope, Wrappers, and Butts are Not Created Equal http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/10/03/trash-lab-because-rope-wrappers-and-butts-are-not-created-equal/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/10/03/trash-lab-because-rope-wrappers-and-butts-are-not-created-equal/#comments Wed, 03 Oct 2012 16:14:12 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=3187

Ocean Conservancy scientists George Leonard and Carmen Yeung sort through trash found on Santa Cruz beaches to better understand what’s ending up in the ocean.

Not all trash is created equal. Why does it matter? For the person who tosses their water bottle or chip wrapper into a garbage can, maybe it doesn’t. But for the integrity and health of our waterways, beaches and ocean and its animals, it indisputably does.

Over the past 27 years, through our annual International Coastal Cleanup, Ocean Conservancy has compiled the world’s largest and most comprehensive database on ocean trash. During this time, the data collection methods used by Cleanup volunteers counted one cigarette butt as equal to one plastic bottle or one fishing net. On paper this quantification may make sense, but in the marine environment these items pose very different threats to animals and ecosystems. Large scale ecological impacts of marine debris in the ocean remain unknown, but Scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) are currently researching this very question to determine the magnitude of impact for different types of marine debris.

Ocean Conservancy is committed to using science to better understand the trash and debris found on beaches and in waterways around the world. Our Science Team—Denny Takahashi-Kelso, Stan Senner, George Leonard, and Carmen Yeung to name a few—conducted a pilot project in Santa Cruz, CA called “Trash Lab” that tested new protocols for weighing collected marine debris so that we can better understand historical and future Cleanup data. Our research goals were to:

  • Find average masses for specific types of marine debris collected during the Cleanup; and
  • Analyze samples of unidentifiable large plastic debris and whole microplastics to determine the types of plastic found on beaches during Cleanups.

As NCEAS Scientists generate more information about the relationship between the risks/impacts and size, shape, volume and mass of debris, it will better inform our decisions to select the most appropriate measure for each type of debris. Therefore during our pilot project, our team tested different methods to weigh marine debris.  If this pilot is feasible and provides new insight into our historical database of ocean trash, we’ll expand Trash Lab to sample and measure marine debris gathered during the Cleanup at three additional sites—West Coast, East Coast, and Gulf Coast.

Trash Lab is the first of many steps Ocean Conservancy has in place to deepen our understanding of the International Coastal Cleanup data, so that we continue to keep trash off the beach and stop it at its source while simultaneously enriching our knowledge of its threat to marine animals and ocean ecosystems.

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Fish and chips: wild, farmed or hybrid? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/13/fish-and-chips-wild-farmed-or-hybrid/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/13/fish-and-chips-wild-farmed-or-hybrid/#comments Mon, 13 Aug 2012 15:04:37 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=2125

Do you know where the fish in your fish and chips came from? Credit: David Ascher

Next time you go to your local fish market, ask them for a hybrid fillet. My guess is they will stare at you with a confused look on their face or direct you to the local Toyota dealership. Most consumers and seafood retailers typically think of seafood as either farmed or wild. But if a new proposal on seafood labeling gains traction, you may soon see the term “hybrid” American lobster alongside wild Pacific Halibut and farmed Atlantic salmon.

Fishing is different than farming. Fishermen ply the seas and interact with the fish only once, when they capture it. Fish farmers, by contrast, tend their crop, generally from egg to juvenile fish to harvest as adults. Fishing is thus analogous to hunting, while aquaculture is more akin to farming.  Fishermen also tend to think of themselves as fundamentally different from fish farmers and there can be animosity among the two groups because their products compete in the marketplace. But deep down, most seafood experts have long known that this simple distinction isn’t really based on reality.

Now a new science paper from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis published in the journal Marine Policy maps out a suite of species that are not clearly either wild or farmed – they are a hybrid of both. Hybrids are wild fisheries that use aquaculture techniques or farmed fish that use certain fisheries techniques. For example, the iconic wild salmon from Alaska actually relies heavily on hatcheries (a form of aquaculture) to increase the wild fish’ natural reproduction. The Gulf of Maine has essentially become a large lobster farm, where baited traps feed juvenile lobster until they are large enough to be caught by lobstermen. Bluefin tuna, a species in precipitous decline in the wild, is now “ranched” in the Mediterranean by stocking aquaculture cages with juvenile fish and fattening them until they are ready for market. Likewise, eel (the popular unagi at your local sushi restaurant) is produced from a hybrid system, capturing juveniles from the wild and then farming them to the perfect size for sushi rolls.

While this distinction may seem academic, it makes a difference. If we are to better manage fishing and farming and develop policies to promote ways to reduce environmental impacts, we need a more accurate way of tracking and categorizing seafood.  Those forms of aquaculture that rely on wild fish for feed inputs or wild juveniles to stock the farm, actually put additional pressure on the ocean.  If large quantities of bait are used in wild fisheries or ecosystems are altered by fishing activities, we may overestimate how many fish the oceans can actually produce.

Rethinking how we categorize seafood would help scientists, fishery managers and seafood businesses better understand the impacts of seafood production. Doing could also be an important part of ensuring fish for the future.


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We need a “Mythbusters” for Marine Debris http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/05/04/we-need-a-mythbusters-for-marine-debris/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/05/04/we-need-a-mythbusters-for-marine-debris/#comments Fri, 04 May 2012 17:46:17 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=375

Plastic doesn't just disappear; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Scientists are just starting to understand the impacts fragmented plastics have on our ocean. Photo credit: NOAA

A “gigantic floating island of trash.” The media has been full of stories about an ocean drowning in plastic for years. It’s great that public awareness about ocean trash has skyrocketed, but awareness built on fundamental misconceptions won’t lead to durable, long term solutions—particularly with respect to plastics. What we need now is rigorous scientific analysis of both the scope of the problem and the best ways to solve it.

I’ve been to—and sailed through—the North Pacific Gyre and the reality is that there is no huge, floating island of trash twice the size of Texas – instead, large areas of the Pacific are a sort of trash soup containing lots of small bits of plastic. And I mean LOTS. Of course to most, the size or viscosity of the trash in the ocean misses the point. Trash shouldn’t be in the ocean; it’s a problem we can and should collectively solve.

But as a scientist, I know that compared to other areas of ocean research, the science of marine debris is still in its infancy and evolving quickly. There is a lot we still don’t know but some new research is troubling. Just last month, researchers published findings that show that plastics may not be just at the surface, but may be widely distributed in deeper waters. While we do not know exactly how much plastic is in our oceans, these findings indicate plastics may be more widespread than previously thought. Because global data on marine debris are fragmented, scientific synthesis is needed and predictive models will be necessary to fully quantify how much plastic is in the ocean, where it is, and what its impacts on marine ecosystems are.

At Ocean Conservancy, we want science to drive the debate. That is why we are supporting a scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis to improve the state of the science of ocean trash. This work is just getting underway but is sure to help inform what we can all do about trash in our oceans.

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