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Marine Debris - No doubt, trash in the ocean is an eyesore. No one seeks out a trash-strewn beach for recreation or spiritual renewal. And trash in the water is never a welcome sight for boaters and swimmers. But beyond mere aesthetics, the more serious fact is that marine debris kills.
Countless sea creatures eat things they shouldn't, things we dump in the water carelessly. Ingested trash can choke an animal or poison it with toxins. Many animals are unable to regurgitate such items. And, once eaten, indigestible trash gives animals a false sense of fullness. They stop eating and slowly starve to death.
Sea turtles, for instance, mistake plastic bags and balloons for jellyfish (a favorite food) and die when the plastic chokes them or clogs their digestive systems. Scientists recently found a sperm whale with 440 pounds of fishing gear in its stomach. Pygmy sperm whales and dolphins have also fallen victim to plastic bags and balloons that they mistake for squid. And seabirds aren't picky eaters they will eat plastic pellets, bottle caps, string, cigarette butts, and other small pieces of trash.
In addition, trash in the ocean poses the serious threat of entanglement. Curious seals poke their noses into plastic containers or six-pack rings and then get stuck, preventing them from eating or even breathing. Playful dolphins swirl around discarded fishing nets and rope, becoming entangled. When animals get caught in abandoned fishing nets, lines, and ropes floating in the water a phenomenon known as "ghost fishing" - they may drown immediately or drag the debris around until they weaken and die. Abandoned nets drifting underwater can also snag on corals, sponges, and sea fans, damaging and even dislodging them.
Source: Ocean Conservancy
Did you know?
Source: Project Aware (Opens PDF)
Marine Debris FAQs from the NOAA web site.
Do plastics degrade in the environment?
Plastic photo-degrades--breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces due to exposure to solar UV radiation. However, when in water plastic does not get direct sunlight exposure, therefore breakdown happens much more slowly in the aquatic environment. So far as we know based on research to date, plastics do not ever fully “go away,” but rather break down into smaller and smaller pieces, sometimes referred to as microplastics.
Is it true that 100,000 marine mammals and/or sea turtles die each year due to marine debris/plastics/plastic bags?
Origin of statement:
NOTE: This proceedings document was published prior to the implementation of MARPOL Annex V.
"Debris entanglement is estimated to cause 50,000 to 90,000 deaths per year in the northern fur seal. The population in 1983 was dropping on the main rookery in Alaska at about 8% per year. At least 50,000 deaths are thought to be due to entanglement; the other 40,000 deaths possible entanglement or possibly some unknown factor such as disease (Fowler 1983)."*
In Conclusions: "Up to one hundred thousand marine mammals and possibly more die each year. Half or more of the individuals of certain marine reptile species are affected by the plastic litter, and beachcombing land mammals become snarled in nets and die."
*Fowler, 1983 is a background paper for the 26th Annual Meeting of the Standing Scientific Committee of the North Pacific Fur Seal Commission.
Origin of plastic bag statement: We were able to find no information to support this statement. An erroneous statement attributing these figures to plastic bags was published in a 2002 report published by the Australian Government; it was corrected in 2006. See the 2002 report published by Environment Australia entitled, “Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts” or click here.
In 2006, Environment Canada recanted the statement “A figure of 100,000 marine animals killed annually has been widely quoted by environmental groups; this was from a study in Newfoundland which estimated the number of animals entrapped by plastic bags in that area from a four-year period from 1981-1984” and replaced it with “A figure of 100,000 marine animals killed annually has been widely quoted by environmental groups; this was from a study in Newfoundland which estimated the number of animals entrapped by plastic debris in that area from a four-year period from 1981-1984.”
The original study cited by Environment Canada, and thus, Environment Australia, is:
Is plastic a large portion of the debris that enters our oceans? How much?
Because marine debris of all types enter our oceans, plastics of every type can be found, from the PET used to make many plastic bottles, to the polystyrene or “Styrofoam” cups and the nylon line used in fishing nets. Plastic likely makes up a sizeable portion of the marine debris that exists today. Exactly how much plastic debris is out there, or even what percentage plastic debris makes up, is very difficult to know and can vary by location. There is simply so much that we do not see.
Have there been studies by NOAA on impacts of plastics to marine mammals and fish?
The NOAA Marine Debris Program and other NOAA offices have supported numerous studies on the impacts of plastics to marine mammals, fish, and their habitats. Many of these studies have dealt with plastic derelict fishing gear (e.g., nylon fishing nets), a debris type that can pose a significant threat to a wide range of marine species and habitats.
Are all plastics created equal once they are in the environment? Do some cause more damage than others?
In terms of what we know, derelict fishing gear (DFG) (much of which is made of plastic) has numerous and quite severe impacts not only to living marine resources, but navigation safety as well. Numerous studies have documented the impacts of DFG to wildlife, including entanglement, ghostfishing (continuation of derelict fishing gear to capture marine life), habitat degradation, and even alien species transport. All of these likely having a related economic cost.
Is there a source/reference to see an actual plot of plastic marine debris occurrence?
Currently, there is no comprehensive map plotting plastic debris occurrence. Because marine debris moves with winds and currents, sometimes far from its origin, it has become a global problem. If there were a map of plastic debri occurrence, it would most likely include coastal areas worldwide – monitoring and debris accumulation studies and survey results could be used. Of course, the map would only show marine debris that can be seen or that is washing ashore. Studies are now also being done on marine debris that is more difficult to see: benthic (seafloor) marine debris (e.g., Monterey Bay, CA and the Gulf of Mexico), and microplastics and small plastic particles.
An accurate and quantitative marine debris map would be very useful, and through collaborative efforts like the Hawaii Marine Debris Action Plan working group, this can be done on a state or local level as a beginning to fully understanding the occurrences of marine debris.
Is it true that our fish are being poisoned by marine debris? (plastics and pollutants)
There have been a number of studies on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) binding to plastic debris in the oceans. One of the leading scientists on the topic is Dr. Richard Thompson (Marine ecologist, University of Plymouth, UK), who along with other experts in this topic area, was invited to an international workshop on the occurrence, effects, and fate of microplastic debris in September of 2008 hosted by the MDP and the University of Washington - Tacoma. You can find additional information, including a proceedings document of this workshop, here.
Recent studies have focused on the uptake potential of organic contaminants from the marine environment to plastic debris.
Plastic debris can transport organic contaminants in the oceans.
Plastics have the potential to adsorb organic contaminants from the marine environment. It is possible, though not proven, that plastics could also desorb these contaminants to biota that ingest plastics.
Plastic debris attracts and accumulates hydrophobic organic toxins such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) up to 100,000-1,000,000 times ambient seawater concentrations (Mato et al., 2001).
Research on benthic-feeding invertebrates suggests that toxins may be transferred from plastics, to sediment, to the organism. Further research is needed, taking into consideration the range of contaminant types, types of plastic, and environmental exposure effects (Teuten et al., 2007).
Mato, Y., T. Isobe, H. Takada, H. Kanehiro, C. Ohtake, and T. Kaminuma. 2001. Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 35: 318-324.
Teuten, E., S. Rowland, R. Galloway, and R. Thompson. 2007. Potential for Plastics to Transport Hydrophobic Contaminants. Environ. Sci. and Tech. 35: 318-324.
This information was compiled with information gathered from participants of the International Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects, and Fate of Microplastic Debris (September 2008) as well as from Dr. Tony Andrady, Research Triangle Institute.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Eastern Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a gyre of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N and estimated to be twice the size of Texas. The patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of suspended plastic and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography because it consists of very, very small pieces, almost invisible to the naked eye and most of its contents are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean.
The existence of the Eastern Garbage Patch was predicted in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States. The prediction was based on results obtained by several Alaska-based researchers between 1985 and 1988 that measured neustonic plastic in the North Pacific Ocean. This research found high concentrations of marine debris accumulating in regions governed by particular patterns of ocean currents. Extrapolating from findings in the Sea of Japan, the researchers hypothesized that similar conditions would occur in other parts of the Pacific where prevailing currents were favourable to the creation of relatively stable waters. They specifically indicated the North Pacific Gyre. The garbage patch received wider public and scientific attention after it was documented by Charles Moore, a California-based sea captain and ocean researcher. Moore, returning home through the North Pacific Gyre after competing in the Transpac sailing race in 1997, came upon an enormous stretch of floating debris. Feature-stories and video-reports in the UK mainstream media from early 2008, increased public attention to the plastic patch. Moore alerted the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who subsequently dubbed the region the "Eastern Garbage Patch" (EGP). The area is frequently featured in media reports as an exceptional example of marine pollution.
Like other areas of concentrated marine debris in the world's oceans, the Eastern Garbage Patch formed gradually as a result of marine pollution gathered by oceanic currents. The garbage patch occupies a large and relatively stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the North Pacific Gyre (a remote area commonly referred to as the horse latitudes). The gyre's rotational pattern draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center, trapping it in the region. The patch's size is unknown, as large items readily visible from a boat deck are uncommon. Most debris consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface, making it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite. Estimates on size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or "twice the size as continental United States". The area may contain over 100 million tons of debris. It has also been suggested that the patch may represent two linked areas. In August 2009, the Scripps Institute / Project Kaisei SEAPLEX survey mission of the Gyre, found that plastic debris was present in 100 consecutive samples taken at varying depths and net sizes along a 1,700 miles (2,700 km) path through the patch. The survey also confirmed that while the debris field does contain large pieces, it is on the whole made up of smaller items which increase in concentration towards the Gyre's centre, and these 'confetti-like' pieces are clearly visible just beneath the surface.
Sources of Pollutants
An estimated 80% of the garbage comes from land-based sources, and 20% from ships. A typical 3,000 passenger cruise ship produces over eight tons of solid waste weekly, much of which ends up in the patch. Pollutants range in size from abandoned fishing nets to micro-pellets used in abrasive cleaners. Currents carry debris from the west coast of North America to the gyre in about five years, and debris from the east coast of Asia in a year or less. An international research project led by Dr. Hideshige Takada of Tokyo University studying plastic pellets, or nurdles, from beaches around the world may provide further clues about the origins of pelagic plastic.
What can you do?
International Coastal Cleanup - In partnership with organizations and individuals across the globe, Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup engages people to remove trash and debris from the world's beaches and waterways, identify the sources of debris, and change the behaviors that cause marine debris in the first place. Join us this September: Sign up for a Cleanup near you and get involved today!
Dive In To Earth Day - Is an international Earth Day celebration that promotes the active conservation of coral reefs, oceans, and aquatic ecosystems, and raises public awareness of the importance of marine conservation. The vast majority of Earth Day events take place on land, so in order to ensure that the 70% of the planet covered by water is not forgotten, the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) and its partners launched Dive In in April 2000.
Dive In activities take place during the month of April, in celebration of Earth Day (April 22).