The Blog Aquatic » plastic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 12 Aug 2014 15:53:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Nowhere to Hide: More Than Fish May be Impacted by Plastic Pollution http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/23/nowhere-to-hide-more-than-fish-may-be-impacted-by-plastic-pollution/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/23/nowhere-to-hide-more-than-fish-may-be-impacted-by-plastic-pollution/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 21:00:35 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8801

The problem of plastics in the ocean has been receiving a lot of attention recently.  You might even say it’s “trending.” As it should be.  Ideas about how to clean up the mess are circulating around the internet, including input from professional ocean scientists on how likely these ideas are to really be effective.  But the cutting edge of scientific inquiry is assessing the extent to which plastics in the ocean – especially tiny fragments called microplastics – are impacting marine life.  A recent study suggests it’s not just fish that might be eating plastic.

While microplastics have increasingly been documented in a range of fish from different parts of the ocean, a team from the UK has now shown that sea creatures aren’t just eating plastic, they are breathing it.  In an elegant laboratory study, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that crabs exposed to microplastics uptake these particles through respiration and then retain them on their gills for as long as 3 weeks.  This occurs despite the fact that crabs have a specialized appendage called a gill raker (similar to a windshield wiper) for clearing dirt and debris from crabs’ respiratory tracts.

Furthermore, crabs might get a double-whammy of plastics as researchers confirmed that crabs can also be exposed to plastics the good old fashioned way – by eating mussels (their primary food) who themselves have been contaminated with plastic as a result of filtering water for their microscopic prey.

If you are an ocean creature, there may be nowhere to hide from plastics.  Whether large or small, if you make your living by filtering water for food, you could uptake plastics.  If you munch prey that has taken up microplastics, you can also be exposed. And if you breathe in water through gills, as nearly all of marine life does, you also can be exposed to plastics.  While scientists have now demonstrated the various mechanisms by which this exposure can occur, what remains to be uncovered is how pervasive this impact is throughout the world’s oceans and whether it poses a threat to humans who eat many of these sea creatures. Last week’s study confirms that the more we learn about plastics in the ocean, the more concerns grow.

But there are reasons to remain optimistic. The global challenge of plastic in the ocean got a big boost from Secretary Kerry’s Our Ocean Summit last month, where the topic shared the stage with other major threats like global overfishing and ocean acidification. Efforts are underway to ban some uses of plastic that harm the ocean and for which there are good substitutes; Illinois recently banned the sale of cosmetics containing synthetic microbeads, the millions of bits of plastic that escape waste water treatment facilities and find their way into the Great Lakes and the oceans. Four other states are considering similar legislation. California is considering a new trash policy, which would make preventing plastics and other materials from entering waterways a statewide priority.

Individuals can make a huge difference, too. You can sign up to clean your local beach or waterway during the International Coastal Cleanup this September 20th. And don’t forget to take the Last Straw Challenge to keep millions of straws from having a chance to find their way to the ocean.

While emerging science points to a large and growing impact of plastics on ocean wildlife, together we can all turn the tide on trash by fighting for a healthy ocean.

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The Five Myths (and Truths) About Plastic Pollution in Our Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/17/the-five-myths-and-truths-about-plastic-pollution-in-our-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/17/the-five-myths-and-truths-about-plastic-pollution-in-our-ocean/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 18:00:39 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8754

Photo by John Kieser

As the Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who care about the ocean and are making a difference for the communities that depend on it. However, I’m always surprised by the number of misconceptions about ocean plastics.

With many people visiting the beach this summer, not to mention all the coverage that ocean plastics has received recently, it’s a great opportunity to clear up some of these myths:

  1. Myth: There are floating islands of plastics in every ocean.
    Fact: Only a small percentage of ocean plastics float at the sea surface.Most plastics are dispersed throughout the water column, resting on the seafloor, trapped in Arctic ice, or inside ocean animals. The plastic gyres you hear about in the news are primarily composed of tiny plastic particles that are the degraded fragments of their original form (i.e., bottles, containers, toys)—many are the size of a grain of rice. 
  2. Myth: Ocean plastic primarily comes from ocean dumping and industry, such as cruise ships or container ships. .
    Fact: Most of the plastics in the ocean come from items we use every day—bags, bottles, caps, food containers, etc. By limiting single-use plastics in our everyday lives and disposing of these items properly, we can reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean. 
  3. Myth: Ocean trash gyres, large areas of the ocean where currents concentrate trash, can simply be cleaned out of existence.
    Fact: While some surface trash can be cleaned, many plastics break down and become dispersed. Only a small percentage of total ocean plastics inputs rest at the surface. The rest is distributed throughout the ocean or winds up inside animals. We don’t have a realistic, efficient way to remove these plastics from the system (yet).
  4. Myth: Ocean plastics are just a trash problem.
    Fact: Plastic particles are now found inside animals and throughout the ocean food chain—from mussels to fish to turtles to whales. 
  5. Myth: There is one, simple solution capable of solving our ocean plastics problem.
    Fact: Bans, fees, recycling nor product redesign alone can fix this. The ultimate solution is a combination of all of these and more. The biggest impact will come from stopping the massive amounts of plastic litter before it travels over land, and into our waterways and ocean.

With all this in mind, you might be thinking—what can I do to make a difference? You can sign up to clean your local beach or waterway by joining Ocean Conservancy in the International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 20. You’ll be among hundreds of thousands of volunteers working towards a cleaner ocean.

Cleanups alone can’t solve this problem, but volunteers are instrumental in helping us assemble our Ocean Trash Index. This provides us with a snapshot of what’s trashing our ocean so we can work towards preventing the most abundant and problematic items of trash from reaching the water in the first place.

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A One-Size-Fits-All Solution for the Ocean? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/06/09/to-clean-or-not-to-clean-the-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/06/09/to-clean-or-not-to-clean-the-ocean/#comments Mon, 09 Jun 2014 23:00:17 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8457

**Update: June 10, 2014**
Ocean Conservancy has been a leader in beach cleanup efforts for nearly 30 years and we are dedicated to continuing these efforts. We applaud Boyan’s creativity and ideas for an ocean cleanup and recognize that he has conducted a feasibility study to further outline the ocean cleanup model. However, the majority of concerns previously voiced by ocean scientists, as well as Ocean Conservancy, regarding the ecological, economical and logistical components of the technology still remain unanswered. Cleanups are an important part of the solution, but Ocean Conservancy believes that in order to address the growing issue of plastic pollution in our ocean, we must also focus on preventing plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. In addition to our Last Straw Challenge, we will be rolling out a series of efforts over the coming year that we hope you’ll participate in, including the International Coastal Cleanup September 20th. Thank you for your feedback, and we hope to see you all at this year’s cleanups! 

FACT:  There are plastics in the ocean.

FACT:  Plastics are not good for fish, turtles, birds or marine mammals.

FALSE:  Ocean cleanup is the solution.

Over the past year, much attention—some positive, some negative—has been given to Boyan Slat’s revolutionary concept and prototype for “The Ocean Cleanup.”  Yes, perhaps in theory—and artistically sketched blueprints—you can boom, suck and snag plastics floating at the ocean surface. But in practice, it just doesn’t make sense—ecologically, economically or logically.

It would be unfair for me to criticize Boyan’s concept without giving my own opinion, so here it is.

Cleanups are an invaluable education and outreach tool that provide people a tangible way to become aware and involved in the ocean plastics crisis. And no one is better suited to discuss the effectiveness of cleanups than Ocean Conservancy. For the past three decades, volunteers in our International Coastal Cleanup have removed more than 175 million pounds of trash—primarily plastics—from beaches and waterways around the globe. Each year however, there’s more trash to pick up—cleanups cure the symptoms of plastics pollution, not the disease itself.

Concepts of an ocean cleanup technology are no different. If tomorrow we could launch the array of 24 sifters outlined in Boyan’s proposal, it would do nothing to stop the continuous and increasing flow of plastics into the marine environment. Simply put, we’d increase the size of the bandage while our pipelines of plastics to the sea run unabated like the faulty valve in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

From a technical perspective, our friends at Deep Sea News have done an exceptional job outlining the major unanswered technical questions associated with an ocean cleanup and its implications for marine organisms. To summarize the astute response of marine debris scientist, Dr. Miriam Goldstein:

  • Mooring fixed objects in the open ocean is improbable due to depths exceeding 4,000 meters;
  • The mixed layer in the open ocean can run 100-150 meters deep during high wind, rendering the collection boom useless; and
  • Large, durable floating “capture devices” are likely destined to be future marine debris that can entangle marine animals.

All of this is to say that “…I think it is highly unlikely that a [cleanup] array of this size and magnitude will ever be feasible.”

I am an optimist. And I applaud Boyan for his creativity and ingenuity. However, in our current climate we need to look upstream for solutions, not to the center of the gyres. Resin manufacturers and consumer product companies must adopt a business model based on the principles of a circular economy, where products do not become waste after consumer use, but rather valuable materials that are recycled and reused in product manufacturing. Similarly, we must look to developing nations where increasing populations and affluence are fueling a desire for the single use disposable plastics that have been a part of our society for decades, but where even the most basic of waste management infrastructure does not yet exist. Such an approach addresses the plastic pollution vector at both its entry and exit points in our consumer society. Simultaneously, we, as individuals, must continue to do our part by reducing our unnecessary consumption of disposable plastics and supporting smart public policies that eliminate the most threatening forms of plastic pollution altogether.

There are solutions to ocean plastics. Ocean cleanup is not the solution.

 

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Gulf of Maine Cleanups Show Ocean Trash Is Global Problem With Local Impacts, Solutions http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/08/28/gulf-of-maine-cleanups-show-ocean-trash-is-global-problem-with-local-impacts-solutions/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/08/28/gulf-of-maine-cleanups-show-ocean-trash-is-global-problem-with-local-impacts-solutions/#comments Wed, 28 Aug 2013 21:50:18 +0000 Allison Schutes http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6565 Scientist aboard American Promise empties a net full of marine debris

Photo: Allison Schutes / Ocean Conservancy

200 miles, 7 beaches, 4 islands and over 7,500 pieces of trash: These numbers can be used to describe my time with Rozalia Project in the Gulf of Maine. But they don’t tell the whole story. Instead “inspiring” seems to capture most of my emotions.

Incredible scenery and wildlife served as the backdrop for the long days we spent collecting and removing trash while living aboard American Promise. Not only were we surrounded by a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins as we sailed south from Hurricane Island, but we also had a finback whale come within 5 meters of the boat at sunset. We saw the spouts of another whale in the moonlight reflecting off the ocean, and we observed harbor porpoises and seals, a pair of bald eagles and even an ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, in Gosport Harbor.

Our crew of 10—eight people and two dogs—were united with one goal: to remove as much trash from the shoreline and ocean surface as possible while recording data about each and every item we removed. Sailing from Bar Harbor to Kittery, Maine, we conducted seven shoreline cleanups on four different islands, and aboard American Promise, we performed three Neuston net tows and multiple dip-net sessions—all resulting in the collection of a lot of trash.

Despite traveling to several remote islands off Maine’s rocky coast, we found many of the same items that top our list during the International Coastal Cleanup every year. Items like food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, foam cups and plates, and bottle caps were prevalent on almost every cleanup conducted while sailing through the Gulf of Maine.

These results are not incredibly surprising because we know that trash travels. Whether carried by the wind, current or human hands, everyday trash is able to make its way to even the most remote of places. For example, I pulled a food wrapper, a cigarette butt and a strap for sunglasses out of the water while sailing 50 miles off the coast of Portland, Maine.

Yet during this journey, single use plastic items were not our biggest finds. Fishing gear, including rope, monofilament line, fishing buoys, pots and traps, and lobster claw bands topped our list of items collected through the entire journey. We even found lobster bands, bleach and beverage bottles with French labels and markings, indicating these items may have started their journey in Canada.

All of these data are further indicative that ocean trash is a global problem with local impacts and local solutions. We all have a role to play in combating ocean trash, and joining us for the 28th International Coastal Cleanup is a great place to start.

Want to get started before the Cleanup? Take the pledge to help turn the tide on ocean trash.

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VIDEO: My GYRE Expedition to Alaska’s Remote Coastline http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/07/22/an-expedition-to-alaska/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/07/22/an-expedition-to-alaska/#comments Mon, 22 Jul 2013 19:39:16 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6349
This video is the final update from Ocean Conservancy Conservation Biologist and Marine Debris Specialist Nicholas Mallos about his GYRE Expedition in Alaska. Read his first update here, his second here and his third here.

I recently returned from an expedition to survey ocean trash on some of the most remote coastlines in all of Alaska. Rarely do you get the opportunity to be so close to the very animals you are working to protect.

In this video that I shot during the trip, I explain what I saw on my journey, from marine debris that would dwarf a human to breaching humpbacks, fin whales, mothers and their calves. Yes, we have blemished these landscapes, but the incredible wildlife that still thrive there is all the more the reason to continue our work to keep trash out of our waterways and our ocean.

Watch the video and join the fight for a healthy ocean.

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What Goes Up Must Come Down: Celebrate the Fourth of July with a July 5 Cleanup http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/07/02/what-goes-up-must-come-down-celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-with-a-july-5-cleanup/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/07/02/what-goes-up-must-come-down-celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-with-a-july-5-cleanup/#comments Tue, 02 Jul 2013 17:00:22 +0000 Allison Schutes http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6216 fireworks

Credit: Jon Rawlinson via Flickr

Watermelon, baseball, cookouts, beach trips and fireworks: Does it get any better than summer? Summer is my favorite season for many reasons, but sitting in the sand with a warm summer breeze while watching fireworks takes me back to being a kid and the sheer joy summer entails.

The Fourth of July is also a day that unites all Americans. No matter where you live, it’s the perfect day to gather with family and friends, spend time outside and end the evening gazing upward at colorful explosions in sky.

But amid the excitement of finding the perfect perch to watch the fireworks display and the rush to beat the traffic after the show concludes, it’s easy to forget all the small pieces of cardboard and plastic that float back down to the ground after the amazing spectacle in the sky. Unfortunately, this debris can end up in our ocean, affecting the health of people, wildlife and economies.

Even in places where fireworks are not allowed on the beach, July Fourth is one of the busiest days of the entire year for our coastlines. A crowded beach not only means it may be tough to find a spot to set your towel, but it also means more trash.

From food wrappers and plastic beverage bottles to cigarette butts, straws and plastic bags, you name it and we’ve found it on the beach during our annual International Coastal Cleanup. These items may be accidently left behind or they may blow out of trash cans, but ultimately they can end up spending years in our ocean, littering our beaches and endangering marine life.

So this week, I challenge you to spend not only one day, July Fourth, at your local shoreline or park, but spend two! Communities all over the country—from Seattle to San Diego and even Washington, D.C.—host beach, waterway and park cleanups on July 5. Volunteers head to the busiest spots to ensure the remnants of all our celebrations don’t end up in the ocean.

To help Ocean Conservancy marine debris specialists get a snapshot of how many fireworks we are finding on our beaches, we’ve added fireworks to the data card that volunteers use to keep track of what they find during cleanups.

I will be participating in a July 5 cleanup in St. Augustine, Florida, armed with our new data card. If you’re in the area, I hope to see you at the beach!

Let us know in comments if you’re planning to join a July 5 cleanup in your area, and share your tips for keeping Independence Day celebrations trash-free.

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Marine Debris and Unforgettable Humpbacks in Wonder Bay http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/06/25/marine-debris-and-unforgettable-humpbacks-in-wonder-bay/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/06/25/marine-debris-and-unforgettable-humpbacks-in-wonder-bay/#comments Tue, 25 Jun 2013 17:11:26 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6182 humpback whale breach

Credit: Nick Mallos/Ocean Conservancy

One of the most amazing experiences from my time with the GYRE Expedition occurred in Wonder Bay—a name that each locale in Alaska is rightly deserving of as the beauty and tranquility of the landscape here never ceases. Although Wonder Bay is aptly named, the debris problem here was much bigger than we expected considering its relatively small wrack line roughly 100 meters from the tide line, much higher than the other beaches we’ve surveyed.

My morning objective was to search for bottle caps along the wrack lines of each of the three pocket beaches lining Wonder Bay. I plucked 227 caps from the three beaches, some requiring far greater effort than others to collect.

A red bottle cap sticking out of a dense area of sedge grass quickly revealed another eight PET bottles, each with a colorful cap. With only a quick glance none of these items were visible, causing me to ponder how many other bottles and caps were hidden among the grasses or tucked into the various crevices among the rocks.

Beyond the beach’s berm was a small patch of wetland followed by a forest that rises quickly in elevation. Outfitted with my indestructible knee-high boots, I made my way through the quicksand-esque mud to take a look at the tree line of the forest.

To my amazement, I came across another large foam aquaculture float washed in by the tsunami. These floats have become a staple debris item on each beach we visit. The float was nestled behind a massive Sitka spruce some 200 meters from the tideline, and it serves as yet another reminder of the powerful wave and tidal action that influences these remote shorelines.

Nearby the degrading foam, a massive bundle of black plastic strapping bands intertwined with a clump of sedges. The strapping bands were unused and likely lost during transport years ago. The sedges hid most of the synthetic strips, causing several of us to contemplate whether at some point these items stop being pollution and become part of the environment. Ultimately, I think the answer depends on what demonstrable impacts those plastics have.

We departed Wonder Bay’s protection after several hours in the field and all on board the Norseman prepared to enter the legendary Shelikof Strait, which is notorious for delivering massive waves, high winds and all-around discomfort to those individuals who have not yet acquired their “sea legs.” But instead of tumultuous waters and uneasy stomachs, we were graced with the most magical wildlife encounter of my life.

Shortly after leaving Wonder Bay, Carl reported a breaching humpback several hundred meters off the bow. Such a report sends the team into frenzy, and within seconds the bow of the Norseman was full of people, cameras in hand. As we motored into the Strait, spouts increasingly appeared on the horizon in all directions. Fifty whales would not be an exaggeration.

Transfixed by the sights, our excitement grew into pure amazement when a large humpback completely exited the water some 200 meters from the boat. Her re-entry from breach sent a thunderous crash of water into the air. This miraculous evening encounter alone would have been sufficient but the show was not even close to complete.

Moments later, a mother humpback—the one we believe performed the aerial—appeared no more than 30 meters from our vessel, her calf alongside. Captain Paul immediately cut the engines to avoid disturbing or injuring the marine mammals.

My teammates and I stood hypnotized by the close encounter, and although it was not my first such encounter, it might as well have been. The sound of a spouting whale is indescribable—almost spiritual—and from our close proximity, we could feel the power of each exhalation. The mother and child remained close, and the calf fumbled about on the surface, still working to master its surface behavior. After gracing us with 30 minutes of their time, the calf signed off with the most resplendent farewell: a full breach only meters from the boat.

We each stood on the Norseman’s bow. Mirrored images of the Katmai Mountains and setting sun made it difficult to discern where reality started and reflections began. Camera clicks ceased, and no words were spoken. At a time like this, no words or pictures suffice. The best thing to do is simply cherish the moment, as most mariners spend their lifetimes on the sea and do not experience such an encounter.

So there we were, a strange mélange of people from around the world sitting calmly on waters that by all accounts should be turbulent and unforgiving, sharing a moment that will likely be our only in this lifetime.

Alaska. Wow!

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