“All drains lead to the Ocean” (Finding Nemo, 2003)
We continually hear from the scientists looking for life forms on other planets that the most important ingredient for life is WATER! Our oceans are our largest water resource, they are the basins through which all the water on earth is cycled. Taking care of them and the marine life thriving within them is the responsibility of every human being, and yet the impact of human activities has resulted in pollution of every square mile of Earth’s oceans and the pollution of water bodies affects the marine life and humans alike.
Although the oceans cover two-thirds of the surface of the Earth, they are surprisingly vulnerable to human influences such as overfishing, pollution from run-off, and dumping of waste from human activity. Toxins from pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals used on farms and in industry contaminate nearby rivers that flow into the ocean which can cause extensive loss of marine life in bays and estuaries leading to the creation of dead zones, a zone without life. The dumping of industrial, nuclear and other waste into oceans was legal until the early 1970’s after which it became regulated; however, dumping still occurs illegally as the vastness of the ocean makes monitoring it impossible! Ironically it is this same vastness that has lead to Oceans being used as dumpsites. Long before we understood the intricate systems in our oceans and waterways and the vital part they play in influencing the earth’s climate and weather and their provision of natural resources we took the approach of “out of sight –out of mind” and proceeded to dump our junk into the depths.
In the 1970s, 17 million tons of industrial waste was legally dumped into the ocean. In the 1980’s, 8 million tons were dumped including acids, alkaline waste, scrap metals, waste from fish processing, flue desulphurization, sludge, and coal ash.
It is now known that accumulation of waste in the ocean is detrimental to marine and human health. One unwanted effect is eutrophication, a biological process where dissolved nutrients cause rapid growth of aquatic plants and bacteria thereby depleting the oxygen concentration in the water body creating oxygen poor environment that kills marine life. In addition to eutrophication, ocean dumping can destroy entire habitats and ecosystems when excess sediment builds up and toxins are released. Although ocean dumping is now managed to some degree, and dumping in critical habitats and at critical times is regulated, toxins are still spread to these areas by ocean currents. Alternatives to ocean dumping include recycling, producing less wasteful products, saving energy and changing the dangerous material into more benign waste.
The ocean is a wonderfully complex and interwoven ecosystem with each biotic and abiotic factor influencing every other component directly or indirectly. When one habitat vanishes, organisms that rely on that niche can no longer survive. A crucial ecosystem is the coral reef, a place of great biodiversity, recreational value, a sanctuary for most young fish and very important to the protection of coastlines during storms. Unlike terrestrial national parks that are in full view, pristine underwater environments are seldom seen by people and therefore are less likely to be protected or considered important. The loss of biodiversity in the oceans is more critical than simply losing a source of wonder for future generations. Loss of biodiversity has the power to profoundly affect human survival. For example, species like sea sponges have been found to hold chemicals capable of curing cancer and viruses, but they may become extinct as their habitats become more toxic.
One of the biggest threats to our oceans and the life within them is plastic! Traditional ideas were that plastic did not breakdown in the ocean but rather that it floated around to be eaten by turtles who mistake the floating bags for jelly fish. Recent findings indicate far worse consequences. It now seems that in addition to dying from ingesting suffocating plastics, the breakdown of plastic leaches toxic chemicals into the water body. One of these toxins Bisphenol A (BPA) has been shown to interfere with the reproductive systems of animals, while another, styrene monomer is a suspected carcinogen. Plastic particles also tend to accumulate a surface layer of chemicals thus increasing the concentration of these toxins dramatically, making each fragment a death pill for the life form that consumes it. An estimated 1 million seabirds, and 100 000 dolphins, whales, seals and other animals die EACH YEAR as a result of eating plastic items which they mistakenly think is food. Additionally, animals are found decomposing on beaches, while the plastic they ingested is still in their systems, waiting for its next victim.
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore discovered what is now known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of ocean approximately twice the size of Texas which has become a virtual plastic soup! Plastic and other debris which enters the ocean eventually gets trapped in swirling black holes by converging currents creating this dense area of plastic and plastic particles, nearly one-hundred feet deep, and contain approximately 3.5 million tons of garbage, everything from fishing nets and shoes to plastic bottles, toothbrushes, and cigarette lighters swirl around the gyre. Most of the trash, however, is small particles roughly six times the weight of zooplankton. Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean. Seventy percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor. The rest floats; much of it ends up in gyres and the massive garbage patches that form there, with some plastic eventually washing up on a distant shore. The convenience of plastic bags is quickly forgotten when viewed alongside the damage they cause. There are already a number of cheap and practical alternatives, such as reusable bags made out of washable non plastics, which we already have, be.
You may ask: “So what are the possible solutions?”
- Firstly we can enforce current legislation with regards to dumping.
- Encourage / promote smart agricultural practice to reduce run off thus preventing further destruction of wetlands and estuaries and re-establish them where possible. These areas act like filters or buffers for costal zones preventing run off from entering the ocean.
- Prevent coastal developments; natural shorelines (and the wetlands usually found there) serve numerous purposes, from fish nurseries to absorption of hurricane impact to filtration of the river water entering the estuary.
- The standard should be that nothing should be put in the sea which was not present in pre-industrial times. This will require large investments in sewage processing plants, perhaps with improved technology.
- We also need to redesign industrial processes to ensure that non-biological substances do not flow into the sea but are rather contained and treated on land; such policies would require international co-operation and agreement.
Ideally we need to change our habits, if every person was more conscious of their impact on the environment we may be able to stem the tide of pollution being washed into our oceans.