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.
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.
Olive Ridley sea turtle. Photo by: Matthew Dolkas.
I got a kick out of Groundhog Day, the comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell that was released in 1993. With Murray waking each day to relive Groundhog Day alongside Punxsutawney Phil and his co-anchor, the movie was lighthearted and fun. But the science of ocean plastic pollution is starting to feel a lot like Groundhog Day. And the storyline is becoming much more troubling with each new publication.
This week a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology calculates that over half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic; this follows on the heels of a publication last month by some of the same scientists that predicted that nearly all of the world’s seabirds would be contaminated with plastics by 2050 unless action is taken soon. With each new publication, the case for a global strategy to stem the tide of plastics into the world’s oceans becomes ever more vital.
You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks chocking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a huge variety of other plastic products. As a conservation organization, Ocean Conservancy is deeply troubled by the impact of plastics on these magnificent birds. But how pervasive is this problem, really? A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS gives us a disturbing answer. It turns out plastics in seabirds is a very big deal. It is global, pervasive and increasing. And it has to be stopped.
I had the great fortune to head south of the equator last September for Ocean Conservancy’s 29th International Coastal Cleanup. VIDA Peru, Ocean Conservancy’s longtime Cleanup partner in Peru, invited me to participate in a weeklong series of events on ocean trash, culminating with one of their country’s signature Cleanup events at Marquez Beach. Having been my first time to Peru, and South America for that matter, I was uncertain of the beach and waterway conditions I’d find. Unfortunately, as I spoke more and more with folks from VIDA Peru in advance of the Cleanups, my expectations of clean beaches were quickly dispelled.
I asked Arturo Medina, President of VIDA Peru, what the major culprits were for ocean trash in Peru. He noted that “the waste infrastructure is drastically lacking in Peru to handle the increased waste flows. Ultimately, it all ends up in the rivers, on the beaches and flowing into the sea. Legal and illegal dumpsites located directly on the beaches are also a major issue, yielding steady streams of debris into the water.” I witnessed this first hand as one such site was visible on the beach as I sat on my surfboard offshore—dump truck after dump truck offloading rubbish onto the sand.
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.