You’ve no doubt heard the stories of debris from the Japanese Tsunami washing up on the shores of the United States. It’s kind of a fascinating study of ocean currents. Small bits of plastic and wood are mixing with larger bits and pieces and ending up on the coastline from Alaska to California. A soccer ball from a Japanese elementary school was found in Oregon. A shipping container hit the shore, complete with the Harley Davidson motorcycle it was engaged to protect. A few weeks ago, a support vessel for a commercial fishing boat was found half-buried on a West Coast beach. Residents of Montague Island in Alaska say that walking the beach is like navigating a landfill.
While debris from this natural disaster is a rare occurrence, garbage in our oceans is not. All of our oceans contain eddys and gyres, or circular ocean currents that rotate to distribute weather, water and sea creatures. They also tend to trap and concentrate waste and trash. There is one in the Pacific that has come to be referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” While, contrary to popular belief, you can’t walk across it or see it from space, it is definitely there. Much of it is, in fact, so small that you wouldn’t see it if you were in a boat on top of it, but it’s there.
And most of it is small bits of plastic.
Here’s the thing: When it ends up in the ocean it becomes a part of that ecosystem. Florida did not always have boa constrictors and pythons, but now they’re there and a part of the wildlife. The same holds true for the garbage that we put in our oceans. Fish school around it, shellfish cling to it, dolphins play with it, and sea turtles eat it. You also cannot simply wave a skimmer or rake and make it all disappear. It’s there, for good or ill.
There are two things that we need to know about this debris: What it does and how it got there. What it does is pollute the water. Even though it seems to last forever, it leaches out chemicals over the course of its life. There are toxins that were used to print logos, lesser plastics that dissolve, and as the pieces get smaller and smaller, they get ingested by animals and creatures that filter sand, like shrimp and shellfish. Now the creatures carry the same toxins as the plastic.
And these plastics come from us. They are the innocuous plastic float that we used for fishing. It is the fishing line that we untangled and let float away in the water. It is the beach ball, carelessly left on the shore to be picked up at the next high tide. Bottles and six-pack holders become chokers and garrotes for dolphins and whales. Cheap coolers and packing materials clog the stomachs of our most voracious feeders.
This garbage doesn’t always start off on a boat or a seemingly innocent jaunt to the beach. It often comes from the streams and rivers that feed into our oceans. It is just our carelessness that started the journey.
There is a chance that you can, however, do something about it. You can start with your own personal actions. When you hike the mountains you are advised to “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but memories.” Why not take the same guidance when you kayak or fish?
You can also join us at a summit of professionals from the federal, state and local levels this weekend at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. The Virginia Marine Debris Summit will look at the source of the problem, and try to develop solutions to mitigate and eliminate it from becoming an unwinnable battle.